Prom 24 Review: Jimmie Mac is back

★★★

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Laura Samuel leader
Donald Runnicles conductor

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If ever there was a prom that might make you weak at the knees it would certainly be this one. This gargantuan programme had prommers stretching their legs and sitting down at regular intervals. Was the muscle cramp worth it? Perhaps.

The programme began with James Macmillan’s “ancient yet modern” Symphony No. 4. Here the composer, whose music is often informed by his catholic faith, turned to liturgical music for inspiration, in this case Robert Carver’s Dum sacrum mysterium, a 10-part mass from the Scottish High Renaissance. The symphony is described as ‘a dialectic between four ritualistic gestures: movement, exhortation, petition and joy’. The interaction of these ‘gestures’ made for a work whose structure was governed by a series of gearshifts in tempo, with slower sections of respite interwoven.

Yet despite these heady metaphysical aspirations, the symphony was lithe and organic, starting with an unhinged atmosphere and building to an ecstatic exaltation. With the exception of a last overly indulgent allusion to the mass, the work was arresting and structurally tight. Indeed, there were moments where Macmillan’s maverick genius shone through: the final percussive explosion of tam-tams, tubular bells, timpani, and aluphone was awe-inspiring. Though at times Macmillan’s thick scoring proved problematic for sectional balance, the orchestra bravely seized upon this robust work and gave it a savage character.

After the interval the audience readied themselves for the programme’s next titanic symphony: Mahler 5. This started strongly with electric stopped horns, and the movement’s tragic character was fully captured by both orchestra and trumpet solo. At its return however, the trumpet theme started to push sharp, and the tone was a bit fluffy. To the orchestra’s credit though, the movement’s ending D major chorale was able to lift the audience into Faustian heights of bliss.

At the start of the third movement the horn solo unfortunately also pushed sharp but it was at least firm in tone. From here the quality of performance raised, and the strings aligned with uniform articulation. The Adagietto was perhaps the highlight of the symphony; here there was an absolute unity in tone and generous warmth from the basses. One critique might be that some of the phrasing was too segmented, ruining what could have been a longer, more gripping melody. Otherwise the initial tranquillity and then later feverish passion was allowed to speak for itself.

Runnicles moved the performance straight into the Rondo-Finale with a gutsy fugato. It was a shame though that the countersubjects tended to rush. Towards the ending stretch the orchestra seemed to regather a little composure, but the final D major blaze was sadly spoiled by sloppy ensemble. Rhythmic imprecision proliferated the performance, and at times the wind seemed to have trouble tuning chords. There were merits in the performance: much credit must be given to Laura Samuels who led extremely well. String melodies were voluptuous, producing a full, meaty timbre, and the lower brass should be congratulated for their stunning sound and projection throughout the symphony.

This prom could have been truly epic, and it was clear that the public thought it was incredible. It is painful to say this, but I didn’t think the performances deserved nearly as much applause as they received, especially in the case of the second item. I don’t know who was right in this respect, and I suspect my opinions may be unpopular. I do know however that the commute home was a long one and that if I want to go to any more proms like this one, I’ll need to do start doing more squats.

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