Although both devout Catholics, Anton Bruckner and James Macmillan made awkward bedfellows. Put them next to each other and these two composers’ different musical languages – the mellow grandeur of Bruckner’s Austrian-accented German and the hard edge of Macmillan’s Scottish-accented English – were always going to throw up interesting contrasts.
In Tuesday’s Prom, Macmillan’s new choral work, Credo, a BBC co-commission, formed the hard core of the programme. On either side, the BBC Philharmonic wisely placed orchestral works by Wagner and Bruckner, not only to set up those contrasts, but also to provide some welcome emotional warmth.
The Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde made a languorous start, especially at Juanjo Mena’s slow speed. After a rocky start to the season with a concert of Strauss and Sibelius in which the BBC Philharmonic’s string sound was worryingly anaemic, here it had recovered some depth. The most interesting aspect to this performance, though, was the rarely heard concert ending to the Prelude, which gave us almost four minutes of Wagner that we never usually hear.
The new Macmillan, lasting about 20 minutes, was a disappointment, especially coming from a composer who has made religious choral music a central strand of his work. This was Macmillan at his very weakest, throwing out a handful of striking ideas – a sub-Hollywood brass fanfare, a Messiaen-like wind chirruping – that never become more than empty musical gestures. The score barely manages to make sense for more than a minute at a time. Maybe Credo would have held together better if the performance had been sharper, but it seems unlikely. As it was, the large choir, comprising the Manchester Chamber Choir, Northern Sinfonia Chorus and Rushley Singers, was tentative in exposed passages, albeit stronger when they were all singing together. There was nothing here to like.
Whatever other weaknesses Bruckner’s Symphony No.6 may have, it does not lack an inexorable sense of progress. Juanjo Mena, benefiting from the BBC Philharmonic’s somewhat improved form over the season, gave a big-boned performance. As the brass choirs pealed out, an echo several seconds long rang around the auditorium. The cathedral-like Royal Albert Hall really is a good place to hear Bruckner.