In addition to the Gala Concert featuring the competition itself, seven different events involved the participation of the distinguished composer James MacMillan, this year’s sole judge of the competition.

A celebration of some of his finest music began when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, co-sponsors of the Music Prize, gave the Scottish premiere of MacMillan’s The Sacrifice: Three Interludes. These titanic pieces are drawn from his opera of the same title just as Britten’s Four Sea Interludes derive from Peter Grimes and to my mind they deserve equal attention from concert programmers.

I was totally blown away by the panoramic orchestral scope of these pieces and by their irresistible dramatic power. The brass and percussion writing in particular was on an epic scale. It even risked putting the orchestra’s and conductor Petr Altrichter’s sizzling hot performance of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony in the shade.

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The following day, another astonishing new work Who Are These Angels? received its UK premiere from the Edinburgh Quartet with the Chapel Choir of King’s College conducted by Roger B Williams.

A large unaccompanied male chorus set the atmosphere in the chapel ablaze singing a Latin text from St Augustine while the ethereal sounding female chorus, underpinned by the quartet, responded with the question in English that gives the work its title.

This was the highlight of A Composer Portrait in which Professor Pete Stollery in conversation with MacMillan introduced a wide range of his music from the very beginning of his career to the present. Earlier that day, the University of Aberdeen New Music Group performed a selection of pieces from Northern Skies for cello and piano, a set of remarkably colourful atmospheric sound pictures aimed originally at young players but well worth the hearing.

Baritone Paul Tierney also gave a searingly intense performance of The Children; MacMillan’s setting of a harrowing poem by William Soutar marking the poet’s reaction to the horrors of Guernica.

According to Dr Paul Mealor, director of the Music Prize, a panel of interim judges had studied no fewer than 400 scores from 36 different countries before selecting the five finalists. The shortlisted works were performed by a quintet of players from the BBC SSO, consisting of four string players plus clarinet led by Bernard Docherty.

The first, entitled Lux, Mea Crux, Crux, Mea Lux! was by Hiroshi Nakamura from Japan. Employing a whole catalogue of avant-garde techniques such as microtonal slides and percussive effects mostly from the cello, it came across as the most abstract of the pieces.

In complete contrast, David Elliott from the US introduced his work The Pavilion, based on a poem that evokes an old disused building along with the ghostly memories of the people who once lived there. It was a powerfully pictorial, even filmic work.

From Hong Kong composer May Kay Yau came Vernarrtheit (Infatuation) which used only a string trio. It opened with a fabulous extended cello cadenza played with real pizzazz by Alison Lawrance. Then the trio blossomed out into a feast of string textures with bravura performances from all three players.

Also from Japan, Yuko Ohara’s piece ventured boldly into the realm of advanced instrumental writing in Shade Light. This was an imaginative experiment in using live instruments to create effects more often found in electro-acoustic music.

The final entry was from a young Swedish composer Jonas Valfridsson with the intriguing title, You Live on My Skin. The only work to be in three movements rather than one, it seemed to me to make the best use of all five instruments incorporating the sounds of the clarinet homogenously into the string textures.

Having already made a thorough study of the scores, MacMillan told us that one of the five had stood out as special almost at a glance. Of course, as he said, it is always necessary to hear the music before making a decision. Sometimes the ear countermands the eye but on this occasion his first impression was confirmed and the 2009 Prize of £5000, plus a commission to write a new piece for the BBC SSO to be performed at a concert next year, went to the young lady from Hong Kong, May Kay Yau.

Star rating: ****

Sound, various venues, Aberdeen