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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)
The Sixteen
Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers
rec. Barbican Hall, London, 14 October 2019. DDD.
Premiere recordings
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
CORO COR16179 [78:54]

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 (COR16150).

John Quinn made the Stabat Mater a Recording of the Month – review – 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 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.

Brian Wilson

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