Macmillan: Symphony No. 3, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

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COMPOSERS: Macmillan
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 3, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic, James MacMillan
This isn’t the place to pitch into the nasty vs nice argument that seems to be muddying the musical waters at the moment, but it’s worth mentioning because James MacMillan is apparently being championed by both camps. I take this to mean that his ability to compose structurally rigorous and demanding music that is nevertheless attractive to audiences has got people rather flummoxed.


The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, inspired by the brutal witch-hunts that took place in post-Reformation Scotland, has become one of the composer’s signature works since its enthusiastic reception at the Proms in 1990. The intervening years have not detracted from the composition’s striking conveyance of both the horrific nature of its subject matter and the need to lay the tormented spirits of the victims to rest. The composer’s Third Symphony, inspired partly by the novel Silence by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, is here recorded for the first time. The work is a hauntingly ambivalent study at both the musical and philosophical levels, with themes and textures arising seemingly from their own absence, interacting and developing, then being allowed to return to their origins.


Both works are conducted by MacMillan with the kind of passion that characterises so much of his work as a composer, internalised yet compellingly communicative. The BBC Philharmonic responds in kind with the most committed of performances, captured to perfection by a natural and beautifully balanced recording which (in the case of the first piece) is easily the equal of the BIS rival from Osmo Vänskä. Roger Thomas