The Proms is now well into its final straight, and the week began with the London première of James MacMillan‘s The Sacrifice – Three Interludes. As the title suggests, MacMillan has extracted the music from his 2007 opera, The Sacrifice.
First of the three is “The Parting”, which opens, disarmingly, like a John Williams-esque bit of film music, continuing in this vein for several minutes. Eventually it coalesces into something deeper; a curious music, driven by the strings, taking some strange harmonic twists (akin to one of Shostakovich’s slow movements), before being abruptly snatched by the brass and percussion. This throws a bit of light and air into the mix, and leads to some brief excitement in the woodwinds, though not for long, finally descending back to the mood from which it sprang. The interlude concludes with the greyest of passages (now Wagner springs to mind), muted, melancholic, ashen.
A “Passacaglia” follows, and if the opening moments suggest Britten or Lutosławski, such notions are quickly dispelled by the boistrous melody that chirps up, setting the tone for where things are going. The music originally accompanied the scene of a marriage feast, and there’s a fair amount of merriment in MacMillan’s material, although equally, the ominous presence of the ground bass, coupled with the nasal quality of much of the music, makes for an ambivalent mood (MacMillan’s programme note bluntly states, “It will end in violence”).
The final interlude is “The Investiture”, and its music is immediately grandiose, timpani thundering out a call to attention. Its first few minutes are an absolute torrent of activity; the pace is extremely quick, and while slower melodic strands can be heard within, they’re shrouded in frenetic, non-stop motifs and gestures, thrown out from all parts of the orchestra (chiefly brass and percussion). There are hints of a march—or is it a dance maybe?—either way, celebration (whether solemn or frivolous) is everywhere, in keeping with the opera’s preoccupations at this point. There’s some delightfully weird ‘oom-pah’ material towards the end, teasing the audience, and each time beginning an episode that rises and builds, ultimately to a triumphant yet ferocious conclusion.
There’s much to admire in these three interludes; they work well as a group, and while there are obvious similarities to the world of film music—which, for me, slightly dampens their appeal—MacMillan executes his ideas with such thrilling orchestrations that it would be churlish to make too much of that.