Marin Alsop joined forces again with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a programme of two new works and an old concert favourite.
James MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse was given its UK premiere at the Barbican three years after Alsop (who is also the work’s dedicatee) had first introduced it at her Cabrillo Festival in California. Scored for huge orchestral forces, the piece is inspired by passages in the biblical Book of Revelation which describes the appearance, prior to the last battle between good and evil, of ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet’ – usually interpreted as the Virgin Mary, but also sometimes identified as the Church or the nation of Israel. Macmillan has also pointed out that his musical portrait draws on visual representations of this mystical figure in the art of Dürer, Rubens, Blake and others. It is a finely-wrought score, with a clearly delineated structure in five sections that picture the woman clothed by the sun, engaged in battle, given eagle wings, taken up to heaven, and finally crowned. All of this is clearly described – if a little too literally at times – in shimmering textures, grandiloquent fanfares and ritualistic processions. Alsop clearly knows the work well (she even offered a brief introduction from the podium) and invested it with her characteristic vigour and verve.
The other new work, Judith Bingham’s oboe concerto The Angel of Mons, comes from a different tradition. More Vaughan Williams than Britten or Tippett, it is scored for a medium-sized string orchestra. The subject matter is the bizarre reporting of a mysterious angel that supposedly appeared to British soldiers during the Battle of Mons in August 1914 and which, some of them claimed, helped to secure eventual victory in the first encounter of the war between British and German armies. The modest forces helped to highlight the searing, beautiful solo part, finely played by Nicholas Daniel, as it rises above the warlike dissonances to comment on the divine vision and then observe the continuing conflict after it has passed. At its first performance in 2014, the concerto was played by a much smaller string ensemble, but the BBC SO strings never swamped the soloist, and helped to reinforce the sense of mysticism and spirituality.
Alsop’s strong rapport with the BBC SO was on full show – visually as well as aurally – in a warm and expansive performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5in E minor. A familiar work it may be, but the conductor and orchestra opened up new vistas, particularly in the warm yet fragile second movement Andante and the exuberant, if mildly troubled, Finale. Individual sections played superbly, particularly the brass, which responded well to Alsop’s controlled direction and physical energy.