Music review: The BBC SSO play MacMillan's Trombone Concerto

IT'S fair to say that James MacMillan's music has always been powerful, gut-driven and emotionally intense, yet cast in a protective veil of intellectual rigour '“ that characteristic Scottishness that stops the individual a hair's breadth short of baring his entire soul. His Trombone Concerto, however, is a crushingly honest, personal and agonising cry from the heart.

Jörgen van Rijen Photo: Marco Borggreve

City Halls, Glasgow *****

Written in 2016, it was the first work written by MacMillan following the death of his young granddaughter, Sara Maria, and one that clearly opens the sores of that family tragedy. The tears in the composer’s eyes immediately after Thursday’s UK premiere by its dedicatee, Dutch trombonist Jörgen van Rijen, and the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins were as genuine and personal as the piece itself.

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A soulful chant-like motto from the muted trombone incites initial warmth and security from the emerging orchestral counterpoint, that innocence quickly invaded by troubling undercurrents. Yet there are songs of laughter in the ensuing scherzo, expressed through the soloist’s dazzling, delicate virtuosity, before the storm clouds return, their anger suppressed by ethereal string clusters and the transforming purity of a comforting hymn.

But that is nothing to the two bloodcurdling siren wails that seem to symbolise extreme pain and its exorcism at the music’s agonising peak, before resorting to the trademark “chugging” strings of earlier MacMillan works and, after a pugnacious interchange between soloist and the SSO trombones, a final chord as transformative and resolute as that of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. A heartrending work, no holds barred.

KEN WALTON