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Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Since it was the Day of Preparation (2012)
Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Synergy Vocals (Micaela Haslam (soprano); Heather Cairncross (alto); Benedict Hymas (tenor); Tom Bullard (baritone))
Hebrides Ensemble (William Conway (cello); Yann Ghiro (clarinet); Stephen Stirling (horn); Gabriella Dall’Olio (harp); Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo))
rec. 28-29 November, 2015, RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Text included
DELPHIAN DCD34168 [72:16]

Sir James MacMillan has written quite a number of works inspired by or directly relating the story of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion. One of the earliest was Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) (review). It was experiencing this work both live and on disc that really fired my interest in this composer. Between 1996 and 1997 he produced the orchestral Triduum, an Easter triptych, comprising The World’s Ransoming, the Cello Concerto and the Symphony ‘Vigil’. All three of these works were recorded by Osmo Vänskä for BIS during his time with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BIS-CD-989 and BIS-CD-990). Two choral Passion settings have followed: the St John Passion (2008) (review) and the more recent St Luke Passion (2012-13) (review). However, to the best of my knowledge during his exploration of the events of Holy Week in major works MacMillan has not taken the story beyond the death of Christ.

This he has now done in Since it was the Day of Preparation. For this score MacMillan has gone back to the Gospel of St John, setting the verses in Chapters 19 and 20 that follow on immediately from the death of Christ. Indeed, the chosen text and the work itself begin with the words that give the work its title. As well as the words from St John’s Gospel, which are set sequentially and without any excisions, MacMillan occasionally interpolates short passages in Latin from other relevant sources.

All the works I’ve mentioned in the opening paragraph were scored for quite large forces - Seven Last Words from the Cross required the smallest ensemble, a chamber choir and small string group. Since it was the Day of Preparation is particularly economical in terms of forces. It requires a solo bass to sing the words of Christ, a vocal quartet (SATBar) and an ensemble of just five players. The make-up of the ensemble is most unusual: harp, theorbo, clarinet, horn and cello. The score is divided into three parts and includes a solo movement – or motet - for each of the five instruments. The piece, which is dedicated to William Conway, the Director of the Hebrides Ensemble, was given its first performance at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival and my Seen and Heard colleague, Simon Thompson attended that concert (review).

Each of the three parts plays continuously. Part I is introduced by an extended theorbo prelude which Ivan Moody aptly describes in his notes as melancholy and haunting. There follow passages of unaccompanied narration, first by the tenor and then the baritone, in which the deposition of Christ from the cross and then his entombment are related. The singers’ music is akin to elaborated plainchant and it’s most effective. In between the two narrative passages comes an interlude for the cello. Here Macmillan exploits the whole compass of the instrument and the music is often dramatic and challenging. At the end of Part I there is another instrumental interlude. Fittingly, since it follows Christ’s burial, the music is mainly restful in nature, though there’s a more vigorous element near the end.

Part II begins with the early morning visit by Mary Magdalene to what she finds to be the empty tomb. The narrative, in which all four singers are involved, is agitated as she brings Peter and John to the tomb. MacMillan’s urgent music conveys strongly the bewilderment of the disciples. The next instrumental interlude is for the clarinet; here the music is often strident and it uses a wide dynamic range and the full compass of the instrument. Then Mary Magdalene is left alone at the tomb, the alto narrating and the soprano singing Mary’s words. Christ appears to her. Throughout the score his words are set to authoritative yet compassionate music and the bass is always accompanied by highly imaginative instrumental sonorities, rather as Bach did in the St Matthew Passion. As an example, at this point in the score the accompaniment consists of harp, cello and gentle bells. We shall hear more of the bells at various junctures in the score and a note in the booklet tells us that not only do all the performers get involved in playing the bells but also the composer himself. When Mary recognises Christ and utters the single word “Rabboni!” MacMillan’s scoring is absolutely magical.

There’s a harp interlude, during which MacMillan is most resourceful in his exploitation of the instrument. Then the scene moves to the Upper Room where Christ appears to the disciples. Here, there’s some very attractive, lyrical music, rising to ecstasy at the bell-capped moment when Christ says “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Doubting Thomas’s initial disbelief is portrayed through urgent music but the moment at which Thomas, sung by the tenor, recognises Christ and sings “My Lord and my God” is rapturous. This section ends with a passage for all five instruments. In these pages the harp and theorbo are particularly prominent and, as Ivan Moody says, the two instruments form “a single gigantic symbiotic instrument.”

Part III begins with what is by some distance the longest section of the work. This passage first depicts the disciples fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. Their efforts are fruitless until Christ appears to them and then, miraculously, their net is full to overflowing with fish. After they have joined him on the beach for breakfast comes a key moment in the work where Christ asks Simon Peter three times: “Do you love me?” and entrusts to him the leadership of the church. Here the vocal lines are wonderfully expressive. The penultimate section is a horn solo. The music starts pensively but soon becomes exuberant and virtuosic. Finally, there’s a tranquil passage for the quartet of singers. The instruments take over from the voices for the last few pages. Their music is similarly tranquil and intensely lyrical as MacMillan closes the piece in a richly reflective vein.

Since it was the Day of Preparation is a highly impressive work. MacMillan has achieved a paradox through his scoring. On the one hand the decision to involve only ten musicians brings a sense of intimacy. On the other hand, so imaginative and inventive is the writing, not least in the way the instruments are used, that often one is not conscious that so few performers are involved: the score is, in this respect, greater than the sum of its parts. Though there are some passage where the narration is deliberately pared back to a minimum by the use of a single, unaccompanied singer and plainchant-like writing, I was primarily conscious that here we are listening to music by a composer who is highly experienced in opera. Much of the piece is highly dramatic, even when the writing is restrained.

As for the performance, it must be regarded as definitive for here we have the artists who first performed the score, recorded in the presence of the composer. Brindley Sherratt is very fine as Christ. The music he has to sing is dignified and eloquent and Sherratt puts it across with great conviction. No less impressive are the four members of Synergy Vocals, whether singing as a consort or individually. All four voices are clear, both in terms of tone and diction; they are ideally suited to the music. As for the members of the Hebrides Ensemble, MacMillan’s writing clearly makes significant demands on all five instruments but so far as I can tell, since the piece was new to me, these demands are triumphantly met. Moreover, this is not just about virtuosity; the music requires no little eloquence from the instruments and in this too the players seem to me to be wholly successful.

Paul Baxter has recorded the piece expertly. The sound has presence, clarity and ambience. The booklet includes a first class essay by Ivan Moody who introduces and describes the music with clarity and great understanding.

Since it was the Day of Preparation is a notable score and this accomplished and committed first recording serves it admirably and should bring the work to the wider audience it deserves.

John Quinn



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