Darkness into Light: The Music of James MacMillan – Choral & Orchestral

14 January, Barbican Hall
The World’s Ransoming

Celia Craig (cor anglais)

The Hilliard Ensemble
Choristers of Westminster Cathedral
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

14 January, St Giles Cripplegate
Laudi alla vergine Maria [London premiere]
O bone Jesu
Tremunt videntes angeli
Gaude flore virginali
O nata lux

Plainsong: Aeterne rex altissime
Anon: The Cruel Mother

BBC Singers
Stephen Cleobury

15 January, Barbican Hall
Violin Concerto
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Daniel Hope (violin)

BBC Singers

BBC Philharmonic
James MacMillan


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 15 January, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall & St Giles Cripplegate

Ned Rorem, in “Lies: A Diary 1986-1999”, asks if all painting (even abstract) is representational and all music is abstract (even programmatic), and yet all music is based on the language spoken by the composer, “…is all music, like all painting, fairly representational?”

The music of James MacMillan (the subject of this year’s BBC Symphony Orchestra January Composer Weekend) seems to lean towards the affirmative, in the sense that although it disdains direct programmatic representation, it nonetheless depicts spiritual and emotional truths with unerring accuracy, using a direct and remarkably individual poly-tonal and poly-rhythmic language whose various influences are nevertheless always audible.

The opening concert began with Tryst, based on a poem in the Scottish vernacular by William Soutar depicting a lover’s meeting and strangely recalling the erotic language of the biblical “Song of Songs”. Sir Andrew Davis steered the large orchestral forces through broad sections of passionate tousles between strings and winds, doleful ostinatos supporting ecstatic interjections and pulsating textures with customary skill and verve. This was followed by The World’s Ransoming, a spectacular concertante piece for cor anglais and orchestra drawing on both plainchant and Bach’s chorale “Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig”. The music flies inexorably towards a huge chorale prelude, with the cor anglais elaborating the plainchant melodies against Bach’s majestic harmonies sounded in the brass, before disintegrating into pockets of chamber-style episodes and lyrical orchestral paragraphs which in turn succumb to the ominous knocking of hammer on wood. Soloist Celia Craig was ultimately indomitable, pitting her melodic material, with its wide intervals and sinuous phrases, against an increasingly hostile orchestral sound-wall with poignant resilience.

Following the interval, the orchestra was joined by the BBC Symphony Chorus and The Hilliard Ensemble; trebles from the Westminster Cathedral Choir positioned themselves in the gallery at the opposite end of the stage. Thus configured, the forces launched into MacMillan’s “Quickening”, a piece built around four poems by the composer’s friend Michael Symmons Roberts dealing with the process of conception and birth. The first setting, “Incarnadine”, opens with an orchestral crescendo that culminates in the choir’s frenzied muttering (actually a transcription of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic); this gives way to a homophonic setting of the poem, which was beautifully rendered by The Hilliard – in fact I don’t think I’ve heard this group sounding better. After another choral interjection, a quartet and boy trebles enter into a wonderful ‘duet’ before fading into the sound of congas. “Midwife” is much darker and ambiguous: here both orchestra and singers tugged and played with turbulent, chromatic passages, obsessively repeated phrases and folk elements with equal fascination. The bellicose scherzo “Poppies” is even darker, dealing as it does with extreme passion (in both senses of the word). Again this movement gave both The Hilliard Ensemble and the trebles to exhibit considerable musical dexterity in the luminous setting of the second half of the poem dealing with premature birth. “Living Water”, with which the work ends, climbs from the glimmering hum of temple bowls to the Mahlerian effulgence of an orchestral and choral climax before sinking into silence again via the solitary sound of a violin. Davis pulled out all the stops here, eliciting a wonderful dual sense of sadness and joy from his forces, and providing a very convincing finale. Both composer and poet joined the performers to accept the audience’s ovation.

To move from the sublime to the sublime, many of us made the short walk from the Barbican Hall to the small church of St Giles, Cripplegate, to hear the BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury perform music of MacMillan, Carver and Tallis. The London premiere of Macmillan’s “Laudi alla vergine Maria” commenced the programme, the Singers floating from a resonant opening chord, through a forest of rich drones and florid melismas, to a particularly lush “Ave”. Carver’s rather stark polyphony in “Gaude flore virginali” followed, which led into MacMillan’s very fine motet “O bone Jesu” (a response to Carver’s setting of the same text and a commission by The Sixteen). The work intersperses solo sections with chordal passages before moving on to more decorative episodes featuring the peculiar Scottish ‘turn’ and downward glissandi; overlapping and rising scales lead to a ringing crescendo to bring the work to a close. Warm, stylish singing and a good sense of drama made this a performance to remember. Tallis’s homophonic “O nata lux” and a men-only plainsong “Aeterne rex altissime” then carried the Singers forward into the lush pool of MacMillan’s “Tremunt videntes angeli”; this was followed by some wonderful solo singing from baritone Stuart MacIntyre in the folksong “The Cruel Mother”, the rich foliage and soaring melodies of MacMillan’s “Máiri”, and a delightful encore, MacMillan’s lovely “The Gallant Weaver”. Magic.

The following night saw us back at the Barbican Hall for more large-scale orchestral works courtesy of the BBC Philharmonic, this time under the baton of MacMillan himself. The riotous Britannia began the concert. Taking his cue from Peter Maxwell Davies, MacMillan throws together Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Scottish reels, marches, duck-quacks and other assorted silly noises, and offsets them all with passages of beautiful lyricism. But it’s basically a fun piece (even if there’s serious political comment lurking beneath the surface), and the orchestra followed MacMillan’s lead with a boisterous, energetic performance. In its wake, violinist Daniel Hope gave a performance of MacMillan’s teacher John Casken’s Violin Concerto. Hope’s violin flitted about the changing orchestral textures (sometimes sparse, sometimes rich and colourful) in a cadenza-like flurry of angular melodies and more lyrical outbursts, the work as a whole reminding of Berg’s Violin Concerto. Hope handled the work with confidence and feeling, his tone not big but with pleasing warmth. The composer was in attendance.

The BBC Singers were once again present, this time for MacMillan’s setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, a BBC commission for Wells Cathedral and originally written for choir and organ. This was a splendid performance, with both choir and orchestra making the most of MacMillan’s rich orchestration and inventive choral writing, in which alternatim passages between choir and organ give way to a freer exposition of the material through instrumental solos and Messiaen-like birdsong; both movements come to massive climaxes before gently petering out. MacMillan then conducted one of his most famous and powerful orchestral pieces, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a work in which the composer unifies Gregorian chant, Gaelic psalm-singing and folksong with modern orchestral technique in order to seek reparation, on behalf of the Scottish people, for the horrific murder of a woman accused of witchcraft in the 17th-century. Beautiful string textures give way to a peculiarly violent middle section, which in turn is banished with a return to the opening mood. The outer sections contain extended quotes from the ballad “The Cruel Mother” (heard late-night Friday), which together with the plainchant gives the work its modal identity and offsets the relentless pulse and orchestral frenzy of the central section so effectively. It was a wonderful performance, with MacMillan throwing himself wholeheartedly into the business of squeezing every ounce of expressiveness from the orchestra – which he succeeded in doing.

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