The Birds of Rhiannon
The Gallant Weaver
Recorded on 13 & 14 November 2001, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: December 2002
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 9997
With Sir Peter Maxwell Davies hibernating in his Orkney fastness writing chamber music, the mantle of Composer / Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic now passes to James MacMillan. This CD features the first recordings of works for choir and orchestra (including a pair of unaccompanied choral pieces).
The major work is The Birds of Rhiannon, “a dramatic concerto for orchestra with a mystical coda for choir”. Written for the 2001 Proms and based on a story from the Mabinogion, the ancient Welsh myth source, The Birds of Rhiannon tells of warrior king Bran’s voluntary death, which was marked by the appearance of a choir of angelic birds. Until the startling entry of the chorus, MacMillan has created a rough-hewn, turbulent piece awash with the bloody violence of ancient battlefields. The opening is couched in brooding, myth-conjuring rhetoric that eventually breaks into an uncouth pagan dance pinned by martial fanfares. A troubled lyrical element in the strings provides relief and contrast at the work’s centre and I do not think it mere autosuggestion if I hear in the bardic writing the Welsh nature-mysticism of Alun Hoddinott, a Celtic handshake between the two composers. As the textures become ever more agitated, an almighty clamour is reached, climaxing in the entry of the chorus, singing a text by MacMillan’s ’muse’ Michael Symmons Roberts. Most movingly, the choir steers the tenor of the music from barely articulate frenzy to a consolatory, gently radiant glow and the work cuts off on a final visionary surge. The Birds of Rhiannon was originally written for the BBC Philharmonic and The Sixteen. The BBC Singers bring thrilling and impassioned delivery to complement the BBC Philharmonic’s commitment.
The other works, both sacred and profane, make ideal companion pieces to the main offering. The Magnificat (1999) contrasts choral writing firmly in the ’Anglican’ tradition with more free-ranging orchestral figuration. The awesome organ and orchestral chord which erupts again and again toward the end is almost too big a gesture for the scale of the piece but works because of the sheer boldness of the idea. A hushed return of the opening material closes the circle. The Nunc dimittis (2000) is a kind of compressed version of the Magnificat, incorporating the same repeated chord.
Exsultet (2000) is an extended orchestral fanfare elaborated from an earlier brass quintet. The very low brass writing of the opening is reminiscent of the basso profundo chanting of Russian Orthodox choirs. As the tessitura gradually rises, so does the amount of surface activity until the music releases in a bald alternation of triads, fortissimo and pianissimo, finally sinking back to primordial depths.
The two ’a cappella’ pieces, both from 1997, could hardly be more different from each other. The Gallant Weaver, to a text by Burns, is an exquisite distillation of Burns’s own settings and beautifully rendered by the BBC Singers. Mairi, on the other hand, to an elegy by the Gaelic poet Evan MacColl translated by the composer, is a vehicle for the collective virtuosity of the Singers. The florid melismatic lines are in a permanent state of ecstatic agitation until settling into a sequence of ostinati, cutting off abruptly on a high soprano line – a numinous, deeply personal work. The BBC Singers have a seemingly effortless ability to pluck the most disparate and intractable notes out of thin air.
This splendid release can be confidently recommended not only to MacMillan’s many admirers but also to devotees of the British choral tradition. One hopes that a recording of the composer’s most substantial choral and orchestral work, Quickening, is not far behind.