Composers don’t write music for their diaries: it’s intended to be heard. And if you get your work into The Proms, which has a massive audience, you’ve scored: a jackpot that was shared the other week by three composers, two established, one emerging.
The most venerable (if I dare call him that: he’s just turned 58) was James MacMillan whose new European Requiem played at the Albert Hall under conductor Xian Zhang. We were told the title wasn’t meant to be political, merely a reference to the Western cultural tradition within which the piece sits, but I’m not so sure. Whatever – it’s a concert score, not meant for liturgy, using the standard Latin texts with minor variations. And the tone is strangely martial, with an opening Requiem Aeternam section playing to a warlike march, more ominous than restful.
Musically it owes a lot (perhaps too much) to Britten, with explosive surges of percussion and the pairing of a countertenor with a lyric tenor as the soloists, in classic Britten style. But it’s a fine piece: strong, immediately attractive, with a vivid clarity in the orchestral writing and the vocal music pitched at just the level of accessibility and challenge to command the choral circuit.
Julian Anderson’s new piano concerto, which premiered at the Albert Hall with Steven Osborne as soloist, was less crowd-pleasing but equally significant. It didn’t give its audience the expected virtuoso thrills of a concerto, but played out in spare, reserved, haiku-like terms as a collection of reflective soundscapes: hence its title, The Imaginary Museum; though what was on display wasn’t so much objects as experiences and feelings.
Leaning towards Messiaen and the angularity of birdsong rhythms, it combined striking unorthodoxy with exquisite elegance – especially in moments when an electronic keyboard joined the piano in duets that clanged like oriental wind chimes. For myself, I found it beautiful and fascinating. For an audience wanting pianistic pyrotechnics, though, it was perhaps too bloodless.
No one could accuse Mark Simpson’s The Immortal of having too little blood pumping around its veins: an oratorio on the curious subject of Victorian interest in the afterlife, its London premiere struck me as an hommage to those crazily impossible, over-the-top orchestral scores by Scriabin, Sorabji and the like. With Hammer House of Horror add-ons.
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