EIF 12: MacMillan’s New Work Completes St John’s Gospel Story





United KingdomUnited Kingdom  James MacMillan, Since it was the day of preparation…….. (world premiere): Brindley Sherratt (bass), Hebrides Ensemble, Synergy Vocals, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 22.8.2012 (SRT)

The Hebrides Ensemble; photo credit: Susie Alburg

Anyone who has followed the work of James MacMillan knows that his deeply held Catholicism is an enormous influence on his work.  After completing his St John Passion in 2007, he hatched the idea of setting the remainder of the Gospel text after the crucifixion story.  Since it was the day of Preparation… is the fruit of that endeavour.  It’s set for chamber forces: five instrumentalists, often playing as soloists, a quartet of singers and a bass singing the words of Christ, so it’s on an altogether more intimate scale than MacMillan’s St John Passion.  Furthermore, it works on a tightly organised structure: each section of the gospel text is followed by a “motet” for a solo instrumentalist, and each of the three parts ends with a quintet for all five.  Occasionally a Latin motet is sung alongside the gospel narrative, commenting in some way on the aspect of the story being portrayed.  It’s a passionate, at times visceral work that is undeniably powerful in places but that, in the end, I found rather distancing.

Parts of the work have an almost ritualistic element, perhaps an indication of the devotional aspect it fulfils for MacMillan himself.  The singers process to their places at the end of the first part after the tenor and bass have already sung of the deposition and burial of Jesus from halfway down the body of the kirk, and the tight structure of the work lends it an almost ceremonial air at times.  It works primarily through large blocks of contrasts.  The tenor and bass’s opening descriptions are meditative and sorrowful, immediately followed by a strident, urgent passage telling of the discovery of the empty tomb, which in turn gives way to a passage of ethereal beauty for the scene in the Upper Room.  More often than not the vocal writing is rich and harmonious, and the words of Christ are often underpinned by a halo of sound coming from the singers delicately striking handbells.  The instrumental interludes, on the other hand, are fiendishly difficult and often viscerally aggressive.  This contrast of restrained beauty and harrowing violence gives the work its energy and drive though, to my ears, robbed it of some of its devotional power.  Many of the instrumental interludes felt too long to me, sapping the cumulative power of the narrative, and the work would communicate more powerfully if these were leaner.

The chamber texture of the work gives it an openness and directness of communication that works well on its own terms.  As a straight setting of the gospel text it’s undoubtedly effective, though the overall impression of the work isn’t as contemplative or reflective as I would have hoped.  Instead it was a clear re-telling of the story with too little space for meditation: if that was the purpose of the instrumental interludes then I admit it was lost on me.  The final sections were very effective, however.  The work rises to a climax at the reinstatement of Peter, beautifully accompanied to bard-like strains on the theorbo and harp, and the final passage for the four singers and the instrumental quintet is haunting in its beauty and directness.  You can’t question the conviction of the performers either, especially the stunning playing of the five members of the Hebrides Ensemble.  Synergy Vocals sung with rich beauty as required, and articulated with admirable clarity at every turn.  Brindley Sherratt was a resonant, authoritative Christ.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city.  A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.  For full details go to www.eif.co.uk


Simon Thompson