Coles’s interpretation of Buchanan’s text is nothing short of masterly. His consummate understanding of Wagner’s seamless symphonic process, in which the orchestra plays the dominant role in terms of continuity and thematic development, is highly impressive. Moreover, in common with his post-Wagnerian contemporaries Strauss, Pfitzner, and Schreker, he exhibits that innate ability to create musical ideas that concisely represent underlying pictorial or abstract images. This is potently demonstrated in the chromatically descending ‘death’ motif (synonymous with the merchant), which dominates the first part of the scena in a portentous C minor and forms the momentous climax of the conclusion. Fra Giacomo’s fragment of pseudo-plainsong, announced in the brass, is also highly distinctive, and is used most effectively when it underpins the merchant’s own scheme of hearing his wife’s confession (‘in the Father Confessor’s place’). Here, with a dramatic subtlety worthy of Wagner, Fra Giacomo’s guilt is revealed. In addition to the brilliant and colourful orchestration (which is often reduced to pointillistic chamber music), Coles’s tonal scheme is also worthy of comment. Though based around C minor, much of the chromatic nuance is generated by the constant interjection of D flat. This pitch not only provides an unsettling Neapolitan inflection but also a means of modulation to A flat, a key which features prominently across the larger canvas. Of greatest impact, however, are the statements of the ‘death’ motif during the final act of murder (‘take this, and this, and this’) which are juxtaposed, first in C minor, and then in C sharp minor. Furthermore it is to C sharp minor that the climax recovers (‘Come raise him up, Pietro’) before C major reasserts itself as part of a declaration of heartrending regret, marked by the entry of a plaintive solo violin.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2002