History lessons

Music 2 - Dermot Clinch on Proms premieres

By their words shall we know them. At the Proms we heard the senior Dutch composer Louis Andriessen setting the poetry of Lao Tzu. It was hard to understand. It was in the original pre-Christian era Chinese. The same Trilogy of the Last Day contained Andriessen's own Dutch words sung, illogically, in translation. "Death/ What is that?/you do not crap, you do not piss/you do not think . . . /your nose turns small, your jaw turns limp . . . " The boys and girls of the New London Children's Choir did not snigger. But the composer's famous deadpan facade had for once got the better of him.

The Ages of Man has been the year's Proms theme, and the notable British contribution was Sunday's world premiere of James MacMillan's Quickening, in which the Scottish composer, with the help of the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, traces mankind's common journey from womb to death and, in his opinion, resurrection with especial emphasis on the early leg. There were photographs of foetuses and footnotes where necessary. The programme read like the Great Ormond Street New Baby and Childcare Book. Milky vernix: "a second, protective, oily white skin". Lanugo hair: " . . . grows on the foetus in the womb, but has usually disappeared by the time the baby is born".

MacMillan, too, set words we could not hope to understand - "a loose transcription of the ancient Aramaic text of the Lord's Prayer" - but the promenaders lapped it up. The work was passionate. It began with caressing sonorities, sliding violins, novel combinations of harp and steel drum, soft cellos cushioning the piping male voices of the Hilliard Ensemble. But in no time it had turned into the composer's latest lecture on the meaning of life, death and everything.

There were raging, priapic clarion calls on trumpets and Zarathustran themes on Straussian horns. At the end the Albert Hall organ, allotted peripheral status until that moment, joined in to lead the resurrectionist fervour. The sound world emulated a recent CD called Earquake, which contained a "dozen of the loudest tracks of classical music known to man".

MacMillan's scores effervesce and pullulate. Ideas, rarely developed, are ever renewed, and the imagination tends to the brutally literal. If the verse speaks, for whatever reason, of "frog's legs cocked to jump", so the music leaps and pointedly jitters. Herod's fingers "shake drops into a rose water bowl". The music drips dependably.

MacMillan's work is brimful of beautiful sounds, of the rapid-decay ping of Jamaican steel bands and the hooting of cathedral-trained counter-tenors. But by the incessant clutching after colourful props the composer becomes the child he describes: surrounded by toys, stunning us by images, short on reasoned sense.

Be thankful, then, for Judith Weir, more refined, less rous- ing, equally Scottish. Weir's Natural History received its European premiere at the Albert Hall. Here, too, there was pre-Christian era Chinese verse. But the self-aggrandisement of offering the original in a language not her own is not Weir's way: versions were "the composer's own based on the translation by A C Graham".

The composer was in tight control, as ever, of all processes. Even the programme notes were crafted with a care and detachment to match the music. Her own orchestral accompaniment in the section called "Fish/Bird", writes the composer, "reminds her of the vapour trails of aircraft, stretched out over a blue sky".

If it were not matched by imagination so clear and wit so strong, Weir's self-effacement might be paralysing. But from its initial harp and cello murmur to its tingling, cymbal-infused final questions - "Is it true that the sky is azure? Or is it the infinite distance? Is it true? Is it true?" - the work is consistent in itself and with the composer's undogmatic, questing manner. Only the star American soprano, Dawn Upshaw, for whom the piece was written, marred a great event, the premiere of a genuine masterpiece, bringing to Weir's hesitant, questioning tones a sincere, gluey certainty all her own.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics