This evening’s concert, the grand finale to Colin Currie’s Metal Wood Skin season, got off to a shaky start. Earlier in the week, the hot-shot young Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali pulled out, leaving the UK première of James MacMillan’s complex Percussion Concerto no. 2 to the up-and-coming Spaniard Jaime Martín. To his credit, the concerto held together very well, its sophisticated textures and colours all clearly expressed. No doubt it dominated the rehearsal schedule though, and the other works suffered. The result was a concert in which the Philharmonia didn’t sound their best, although all ears were on the new work.

Colin Currie © Marco Borggreve
Colin Currie
© Marco Borggreve

Sadly, that too was a disappointment. Stakes and expectations were high for MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto, given the resounding success of its predecessor, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, in 1992. As the composer points out in his programme note, both were written for Scottish soloists, the first for Evelyn Glennie, and this one for Colin Currie. The two concertos are similar in spirit and form. The major difference: this concerto employs a smaller solo set-up but pits it against a larger orchestra, this time with its own percussion section. MacMillan is an adventurous orchestrator, and there are all sorts of ideas here that leap out for their freshness and originality. Harp and piano are used to impressive effect. Glissando and portamento textures dominate extended passages. And the percussion section includes a magnificent fire engine siren, and MacMillan is never shy with it.

But the relationship between the soloist and the ensemble is continually problematic. One of the ideas is to have the orchestral percussionists shadowing the soloist. The opening involves moto perpetuo on the marimba – notes all over the place – so why accompany that with two more, very busy, marimbas at the back of the stage? At one point, the soloist plays a kick bass drum, at the same time as several other instruments, but it is not clear why he is playing it and not the orchestral percussionists. There is an extended cantabile episode for steel drum, but it is a shame that the instrument’s cultural associations are wholly jettisoned (although it is certainly a novelty to hear it in trio with viola and flute).

Most frustratingly, the structure and progression of the work is almost identical to Veni,Veni. The whole thing is very churchy, with a three note bell motif at the opening and recurring throughout. The piece also uses the typical MacMillan device of gradually evolving into a consonant chorale, culminating in a supposedly redemptive finale. The whole idea makes my inner Richard Dawkins seethe. But more to the point, this is exactly what MacMillan did last time, and to much better effect. The piece constantly recalls its predecessor, and on the strength of this first hearing, seems destined to forever lurk in its shadows.

Kudos, though, to the conductor and soloist. If Martín learnt this piece in the last few days, he did an excellent job of it. He is a conductor with a very clear beat, no doubt a defining virtue on this occasion. And Colin Currie was his usual, unflappable self. Many aspects of the concerto made clear that it had been written for him, not least the extended passages of virtuoso marimba writing, where he particularly excels. Currie’s Metal Wood Skin festival at the Southbank Centre has been a real success, and a real credit both to him and the venue. But most of the new works presented have been more impressive than this.

The orchestra were coasting for the rest of the concert. Kodály’s Dances of Galánta was given a propulsive and enthusiastic performance, but there was little sense of folk idiom here. There were some surprising ensemble problems too, particularly in the accelerandos near the end, which often left the woodwind soloists behind. Similarly with the “Scottish” Symphony (chosen by Martín in honour of James MacMillan?), which was given a robust and expressive reading, all broad, legato melodic lines. Some of it was impressively dramatic, particularly the development of the first movement  – a real storm scene. But ensemble again was problematic. Martín rarely gave cues to the winds, and their entries were often early, late, or just plain messy. Performance-wise, the MacMillan concerto was the highlight of this concert, and whatever its failings, the players at least presented it in its best possible light.