James MacMillan: The World's Ransoming; The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie

Colin Davis

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James MacMillan: The World's Ransoming; The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie Review

by Stephen Eddins

Scottish composer James MacMillan wrote his orchestral piece, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, early in his career, and while it was one of the works that established his international reputation and remains one of his most recorded pieces, the variety of music he's written and his vastly expanded expressive range make it seem like a relatively minor work -- skillfully executed, with interesting ideas, but less compelling than much of what he's written since then. It's an example of the composer's penchant for addressing disturbing, often gruesome topics with the stated goal of offering a redemptive response to them; in this case MacMillan wrote the piece as a kind of requiem for a seventeenth century Scottish woman executed for witchcraft. This is one piece that would have benefited from a title that didn't attach such a sensationalistic program to it -- it's more effective as abstract music than as an evocation of the imagery that Isobel Gowdie's frightful story inevitably stirs up in the listener.

The World's Ransoming is the first in a group of three works, Triduum, dealing with the events of Holy Week -- Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. It's not exactly a concerto for English horn, but the instrument is featured very prominently, and it's plangently played by Christine Pendrill. It dates from around the same time as MacMillan's percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel, which it stylistically resembles, particularly in its use of plainchant as its basic motivic material. It's a dramatic and enigmatic piece whose sense of mystery lingers after it's over. Colin Davis leads the London Symphony in performances that are polished but dynamic and urgent.

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