James MacMillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Thomas Adí¨s: Chamber Symphony
Jennifer Higdon: Percussion Concerto

Colin Currie, percussionist
Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic

Marin Alsop leads the LPO in a program of three of today’s most important new composers, James MacMillan (b.1959), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962) and Thomas Adés (b.1971). MacMillan is heard from first, in a treatment of an historical event that is very close to this composer as a Scot, a Socialist and a Catholic, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. The work describes, as painfully as is well nigh possible in music, the persecution for witchcraft of the title figure, who in 1662 was induced to “confess” following the most horrible tortures and afterwards strangled and burned at the stake. The music is appropriately brutal, violent and dissonant, utilizing some of the most rasping, rattling, tortured and strangulated sounds that can be produced by percussion, brass and woodwinds, involving a massive chord for full orchestra, repeated thirteen times in the middle of the piece, and then building gradually to a final crescendo on middle C. Running counter to all this calculated anarchy is a theme, first heard on the lower strings and then running throughout the string section, that evokes a plainchant Lux Aeterna from the Requiem Mass. MacMillan’s purpose could not be clearer: it is to remind us to be vigilant against the hysterical outbreaks of intolerance that periodically infect our species. Have we not seen in our own supposedly enlightened time the re-emergence of the ancient benighted belief that one can obtain good results by torturing people?

London native Thomas Adés also writes some ugly-sounding music in his Chamber Symphony, but without MacMillan’s higher purpose. The 12-minute work with allusions to jazz, utilizes a bass clarinet, whose low timbre influences the coloring of the piece. It replaces the usual bassoon in the woodwind quartet, to which Adés adds three brass, five strings, two percussionists, a piano employed percussively, and an accordion. The texture is spare and spikey, with a rather undistinguished motto of a turning semitone running through the entire work. I found the whole thing tremendously uninvolving. If you like the so-called “Ash-Can” school of dramatic art, you will probably like Adés, too. They say every composer has an identifiable “thumb print” running throughout his work; Adés’ should be kept on file at Scotland Yard.

The Percussion Concerto (2005) of American composer Jennifer Higdon provides a change of pace and a satisfying conclusion to the program. Here, Colin Currie has the opportunity to realize a percussionist’s life ambition, in a program placing the artist front and center, showcasing all the sounds the artist’s battery can produce, from the loudest and most aggressive to the softest twinkling tintinnabulation. The array of instruments available to Currie ranges from marimba, vibraphone and crotales (tiny antique cymbals) to bongos, a resonating bowl, and a small Peking opera gong. The large orchestra includes harp, piano, celesta, tympani and three percussionists, with whom the soloist sometimes joins to make a single unit or to play in opposition to the orchestra. Later, a cadenza involving all the percussionists opens a window, similar to the common procedure in a jazz ensemble, allowing for the soloist to do an imaginative improvisation on the drums. The orchestra re-enters, and enlarges on earlier ideas, including the two-bar riff that has largely propelled the work. Things build to a zestful conclusion, followed by well-deserved applause at the end of this live recording, made at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

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