MACMILLAN: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Tryst. Jerzy Maksymiuk conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. KOCH-SCHWANN 3-1050-2 [DDD]; 54:12. Produced by Martin Dalby.
James MacMillan is a young (b. 1959) Scottish composer who has attracted a good deal of attention in Great. Britain since trading in an academic modernist idiom for what is known in this country as the “New Romanticism” — a richly and colorfully orchestrated non-doctrinaire atonality, often augmented by the incorporation of stylistically distinct. material, and supported by extra-musical references. Both works on this new CD, composed during the years 1989-90, exemplify this approach. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is based on an incident from the time of the English Reformation involving a woman accused of witchcraft and subsequently burned at the stake. Tryst is an orchestral expansion and elaboration of MacMillan’s own prior setting of a love poem by William Soutar called “The Tryst.”
Although The Confession is scored for full symphony orchestra, while Tryst uses only chamber orchestra, the works make a similar impact. In The Confession, an explosive, bacchanalian central section is flanked by outer material of ethereal, reverential character. Traditional Gregorian and folk material is woven into the fabric. The central section is similar in effect to the music of John Corigliano, but is somewhat less frenetic; the outer sections remind me of passages of hushed exaltation in the music of Panufnik and even Pettersson. Tryst is in five sections, rather than three. Here one encounters rhythmic usages suggesting Stravinsky and Messiaen, and Ivesian juxtapositions of tonal planes. Both works make much use of eerie string glissandi and cluster sonorities — mainstays of this idiom — while tonality and triadic harmony appear in occasional quotations, to striking effect.
It is easy to understand how music like this can make a stunning impression in a single hearing within a live-performance context. However, despite the density of texture and activity, the appeal seems superficial and transitory to me. Others may feel differently. The performances here are quite good, maximizing the music’s sonic impact.