MacMillan Symphony No. 5, ‘Le grand inconnu’

4 of 5 stars


Symphony No. 5, ‘Le grand inconnu’

The Sun Danced*

Mary Bevan (soprano)*

The Sixteen & Genesis Sixteen

Britten Sinfonia

Harry Christophers

Recorded 14 October 2019 at the Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: August 2020
Duration: 78 minutes



With a back catalogue of choral and orchestral works preoccupied with religious and political concerns it was only a matter of time before Sir James MacMillan produced a choral symphony – one bringing together the depth of his Catholic faith and a need to explore fresh sounds and sonorities. Scored for two choral groups and orchestra, his Fifth Symphony (2019) is a meditation on the nature of the Holy Spirit, its theological mystery generating the tag ‘Le grand Inconnu’. Its three movements (lasting some fifty minutes) inhabit English and ancient texts associated with the physical elements linked to the Holy Spirit (breath, water and fire), the whole inspired by the writings of St John of the Cross and a Belgian Carmelite priest Wilfrid Stinissen.

Described by Harry Christophers as a “cornucopia of virtuosity and brilliance”, MacMillan’s Symphony is an illustrative rather than exploratory score; strewn with elemental, primal sounds ultimately building towards something not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts. Whispered murmurings, ominous string rattling and a watery harp periodically hold the ear, as do ecstatic climaxes, jubilant fanfares and radiant twenty-part polyphony redolent of Thomas Tallis. 

MacMillan styles the work’s compositional process as a “stream of consciousness”. Like so many of MacMillan’s scores, this is directly communicative, yet despite a work rich in incident and effects, its cumulative drama fails to convince.

That said, Christophers coaxes fine singing (albeit with reservations about clarity of diction) and committed playing from an expanded Britten Sinfonia. 

The Sun Danced (2016) is a cantata commissioned by the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal to mark the centenary of angelic visions first seen by three shepherd children. The miraculous movement of the sun predicted by the Virgin Mary was subsequently seen by a crowd of thousands and would prompt the work’s title. MacMillan commemorates this startling event in an unbroken thirty-minute span for soprano, chorus and orchestra and interleaves words, variously in Portuguese, Latin and English from the Apparitions of the Angel, Mary at Fatima and first-hand verbal documentary.

Mysterious orchestral chords (impressionistic in a post-Holst manner), consoling choral appeals by the angel of peace and a highly charged invocation to the Holy Trinity precede fervent prayers for peace, gorgeously sung by Mary Bevan as the Virgin Mary and her promise of a miracle. This last is fully realised in the orchestra’s depiction of the sun dancing, a dazzling passage of frenzied strings, swirling woodwind and triumphant brass – played with superb attack – and leading to a rapt closing paragraph setting MacMillan’s own (Portuguese) words reflecting Mary’s eternal life. 

Vividly scored, stylistically kaleidoscopic, and spiritually impactful (possibly more to ardent believers), The Sun Danced is an evocative, at times arresting, score and is performed here with assurance and plenty of impetus.  Comprehensive booklet notes and translations are included in this important issue.

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