Sir James MacMILLAN (b.1959)
The Sun Danced, for soprano, chorus and orchestra (2016) [28:53]
Symphony No.5, ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (2019) [49:58]
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers
rec. Barbican Hall, London, 14 October 2019. DDD.
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
This recording presents two of Sir James MacMillan’s most recent works. The Sun Danced was commissioned by the Shrine of Fátima in Portugal
for the celebration of the Centennial of the Apparitions there of the
Virgin Mary. Symphony No. 5, Le grand Inconnu, a choral symphony,
was commissioned by Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and The
Sixteen. It was premiered at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, with a
performance at the Barbican, where this recording was made, soon after.
The Sun Danced
commemorates the event in 1917 when a crowd at the Shrine of Fátima
witnessed a vision of the sun changing colour and appearing to dance. It
matters not how sceptical you may be about miracles or devotion to the
Virgin Mary, whose appearance there, promising the end of World War I,
initiated the founding of the shrine. Take the music as you find it, as an
expression of the spirituality which runs through MacMillan’s music.
If we rejected music on the grounds of disliking its theology, we would
never listen to Bach. An
inescapable part of MacMillan’s belief is a wish to overcome the extreme
anti-Catholic sectarianism which he has described as ‘Scotland’s shame’.
Perhaps for that reason, critical opinion of the work in concert has been
variable, with unfavourable comparisons made with his Stabat Mater,
also available on a highly regarded recording from The Sixteen on Coro
John Quinn made the Stabat Mater a Recording of the Month –
– and I was equally impressed in my round-up of
Music for Passiontide and Easter
in 2017. Admittedly The Sun Danced doesn’t have what I called the
searing intensity of Stabat Mater, so I’d recommend hearing and
obtaining that recording first, but there’s much to appreciate in the newer
work. Even those who are lukewarm about the music cannot deny the
excellence of the performance from all concerned.
From the Mariolatry of the first work we turn to a meditation on the nature
of the Holy Spirit in the second in the company of the mystic St John of
the Cross. We begin with an examination of the words for ‘breath’ in
Hebrew, Greek and Latin in a section headed Ruah (Hebrew for wind or
breath). In the other two sections MacMillan investigates the words for and
qualities of water (Zao) and fire (Igne vel igne) in the same
three biblical languages. If, at the end of the work, the Spirit remains
the Great Unknown of the title, at least we are wiser than we began – and
much wiser than the pupil who once informed me that the Holy Ghost was
‘like a sheet flapping in the wind’.
I have to admit that, as a bit of a language nerd – I’d just been checking
out some Sanskrit immediately before listening – I related favourably to
these philological investigations, but some may think them too academic.
Indeed, the very opening of Ruah sounds like a piece of over-clever avant-garde tinkering, with a quiet evocation of breathing giving
way to a wind machine. (The words for ‘wind’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are
identical in all three ancient languages; the Sanskrit word ‘prana’ means
all these and more). Indeed, much of the music in this symphony is
meditative, but there is plenty of contrast in styles, marking the various
influences absorbed by the composer in his music. There’s more than a hint
of the influence of renaissance music, especially from Tallis, whose
multi-part writing in Spem in alium is echoed here in the
arrangement for two choirs in 20 parts. When MacMillan wants to get your
attention, he does so in no uncertain manner, but then he surprises us with
a passage which seems to be influenced by Gaelic singing.
If Symphony No.5 is, as some have claimed, something of a step backward
from No.4, as The Sun Danced is from Stabat Mater, this is
music that is still well worth hearing and it comes in performances which
are not likely to be bettered. My own response is that it’s clearly quite
different from its purely orchestral predecessor, but not necessarily
inferior. Incidentally, Hyperion have scheduled a release of Symphony No.4,
with the Viola Concerto, for release in late May 2020 (CDA68317). My press
preview is downloading even as I write.
Considering how difficult the Barbican acoustic often is for recording, in
24-bit sound this sounds remarkably first-rate. It’s also available, of course, from
dealers on CD and from thesixteenshop.com in other formats. All come with a
booklet containing some very valuable notes.
If you haven’t yet encountered MacMillan’s Stabat Mater, that should
be your first priority, followed, perhaps, by the forthcoming Hyperion
Symphony No.4 and Viola Concerto. The new release may not be quite as
essential, but it’s well worth obtaining.