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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 Sun Danced)
Julie Cooper (soprano); Kim Porter (alto); Mark Dobell (tenor); Ben Davies (bass)
The Sixteen
Genesis Sixteen
Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers
rec. live, 14 October 2019, Barbican Hall, London
Premiere recordings
Texts and translations included
CORO COR16179 [78:54]

This disc, issued on The Sixteen’s own label, presents the recorded premieres of two recent scores by Sir James MacMillan. Both performances were recorded at the same London concert in October last year.

The Sun Danced should not be confused with MacMillan’s 2006 piece for unaccompanied choir, Sun Dogs; that’s a very different kettle of musical fish (review). The present piece was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a group of children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The work is scored for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra. The text was compiled by the composer from a variety of sources and mixes Portuguese, Latin and English.

After a mysterious orchestral introduction, the scene is set by the chorus. Initially the male voices sing words that the Fatima children heard during two Angelic apparitions in 1916. These were reassuring messages and the choral harmonies are suitably warm. Subsequently, the chorus sings a Latin hymn to the Holy Trinity. This all acts as a lengthy preface to the soprano solo (from 10:08). The soloist sings, in English, words uttered by the Virgin Mary to the children during her Apparition on 13 June 1917. Much of the soloist’s music is warmly lyrical and while she sings the orchestral accompaniment is colourful and full of interest. The Apparition took place, of course, during World War I and there’s a reminder of that when the soloist sings ‘You have seen hell…’ and predicts that an even worse war will follow unless mankind mends its collective ways. Here, the music is much darker and more percussive.

At the end of this extended soprano solo the orchestra bursts into life (around 19:15). The music dances vivaciously amid colourful scoring. This passage, MacMillan tells us is “an orchestral fantasy – an instrumental ‘dance’ inspired by stories of the Miracle of the Sun, witnessed by thousands of people in Fatima on 13 October 1917”. On that occasion, I understand, people experienced a vision of the sun changing colour and seeming to dance in front of their eyes. This virtuosic episode for the orchestra is punctuated by choral exclamations; they declaim words shouted by members of the crowd on that day. At 22:28 the orchestral dance is cut off abruptly and sinuous flutes lead the way into calmer music. The soloist now takes centre stage again, singing a text compiled by the composer himself. These words, in Portuguese, are associated with Fatima liturgies. The soloist’s music is gently rapturous. She’s accompanied by the choir singing wordlessly and by luminous orchestral material. It’s a very beautiful passage. MacMillan chooses not to end the work in such tranquillity. Instead, the choir sings joyful homophonic acclamations and then a jubilant orchestral outburst rounds off the piece.

The Sun Danced is one of James MacMillan’s most overtly Catholic concert works. Re-reading my comments, I worry that in attempting to describe the work I may have stressed the religious nature of the text and not done sufficient justice to the music itself. This is a colourful, expressive and often very beautiful score. It’s also very tautly constructed round a well-conceived libretto. Mary Bevan is a splendid soloist and the choral and orchestral contributions are similarly on a very high level.

However, I believe that the Fifth Symphony is a much greater achievement. The premiere of the symphony was given in August 2019 at the Edinburgh International Festival as the climax to a day devoted to MacMillan’s music in celebration of his sixtieth birthday. The performance was enthusiastically reviewed for Seen and Heard International by my colleague, Simon Thompson. I listened on BBC Radio 3 and was enthralled. The present live recording was made when the work received its second performance and London premiere. It was commissioned by John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation for The Sixteen. In recent years that Foundation has done great work in conjunction with The Sixteen by commissioning new pieces by a number of contemporary composers. James MacMillan has been a particular beneficiary of this far-sighted largesse: his searing setting of the Stabat Mater (2016) was another Genesis Foundation commission (review).

The composer writes in the booklet that this project grew out of conversations he had with John Studzinski about the way that the concept of the Holy Spirit has been handled in music. This led to MacMillan conceiving a three-movement symphony for chamber choir, chorus and orchestra. Each of the three movements explores an element traditionally associated with the Holy Spirit, though MacMillan cautions that the symphony is not a liturgical work. The text, which he has compiled himself, draws heavily on the visionary poetry of the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross (1542-1591), but other Biblical texts are used, as is part of the old hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’. MacMillan has given his symphony the title ‘Le grand Inconnu’. This, he says, is a French expression to describe the mystery of the Holy Spirit. I suppose it might be translated as ‘The Great Unknown’ – or possibly ‘The Great Unknowable’.

The first movement is entitled ‘Ruah’ from the Hebrew word for breath. It opens with the quiet, mysterious sound of breathing – or could it be the gentle sound of the wind blowing? Gradually other sounds, mainly percussive, are added. MacMillan creates a real air of mysterious tension, especially when the choir begins to sing softly. Gradually, the texture and tension increase until there’s a great choral and orchestral outburst (6:09). Led by the men, the choir then sings words by St John of the Cross; their music seems to me to have an Eastern Orthodox quality to it. Later, the music becomes exciting and ecstatic, the orchestral parts flickering and ever-active. This movement, once launched, is full of fervour and colour; it’s exhilarating to listen to.

The second movement bears the title ‘Zao’ from the Greek for ‘Living Water’. Here, MacMillan introduces a solo quartet of voices; the four singers are members of The Sixteen. The movement is introduced by delicate music for piano and harp; this sounds like drops of water. Eventually, cooling flutes join in. Much of the music is quiet and flowing, as befits watery images. The soloists all have intricate and challenging passages to sing; the soprano part is more extensive than the others and very demanding. Julie Cooper is wonderful and her three colleagues are also excellent. Eventually, a slow-moving, teeming climax is achieved and then the music just seems to fall away with the quiet sound of a wind machine. Now (at 14:39) comes the most remarkable passage of all. The choir, unaccompanied and divided into 20 parts, begins to sing, in Latin, words from the Gospel of St John. The music that MacMillan fashions sounds to me like the twenty-first century equivalent of Tallis’s Spem in alium. Followers of MacMillan’s choral music will know that he is highly skilled in writing multi-part choral music - I think especially of his O bone Jesu - but this passage seems to me to reach a new level of accomplishment. It’s a fantastic piece of writing, richly imagined for voices. At last the instruments take over and a hushed gamelan-like combination of harp, piano and tuned percussion concludes the movement. The end is surprisingly abrupt.

The final movement is ‘Igne vel igne’ (Latin for ‘Fire or fire’). At the outset the a cappella choir sings more words of St John of the Cross. This homophonic passage is hushed and rapt, the harmonies warm and prayerful. The music makes a very direct appeal to the senses and it fits the words like a glove. The very last line is set to unexpected harmonies which open the door for the music to move off in different directions. The orchestral passage that follows is quite subdued but the listener has the sense that something - we know not what – is going to happen. With a masterly control of tension MacMillan keeps us waiting until at 6:03 the orchestra is heard at full tilt and the Fire is briefly unleashed. Tranquillity is soon restored and a calm orchestral passage follows (from 7:28) in which a highly decorative piano line is heard against a soft background provided by the strings. I may be wrong, but I think the strings’ material is derived from the choral prayer that began the movement. A lyrical passage for choir follows; this is part of the ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ hymn. Incrementally, McMillan builds the volume and, with it, the fervour of the music as the opening words of the movement are sung again, but this time as a paean. Eventually, the contribution of the human voice is spent and the orchestra is left to bring the symphony to an end with music of great inner energy. The concluding warm chord is very satisfying.

MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony is a tremendous achievement. Over its span of fifty minutes the level of invention is consistently high. There’s great variety in the vocal writing while the orchestral parts are packed full of interest and incident. MacMillan shows mastery here of both vocal and instrumental colour. I was deeply impressed when I heard the premiere on the radio but the opportunity now to explore the work at more leisure has thoroughly convinced me of its stature. The construction of the libretto shows mastery too. MacMillan’s exploration of the concept of the Holy Spirit is intellectually rigorous and his choice of texts to illustrate his argument is discerning.

The performance is superb. Harry Christophers conducts with evident belief in the score and, so far as I can judge, obtains playing and singing of great accuracy. Furthermore, the performance exudes conviction. The Sixteen sing as the chamber choir while the main chorus is formed by the members of Genesis Sixteen; the latter are alumni of the training scheme for young singers which has been run under the auspices of The Sixteen since 2011. The choral parts sound very challenging but are superbly delivered here. The Britten Sinfonia’s playing is incisive or sensitive, depending on the demands of the score at any point.

This symphony is a new work of great importance and great conviction. It has been stunningly realised here.

It only remains to say that the performances have been recorded in excellent sound by Mike Hatch of Floating Earth and that the documentation, which includes notes on the music by the composer, is comprehensive.

John Quinn

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