Ex Cathedra Thrillingly Unveil James MacMillan’s Visionary New Work

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parry, Roxanna Panufnik, MacMillan. Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore, Town Hall, Birmingham, 31.1.2015 (JQ)

New Jerusalem
– Jerusalem
Roxanna Panufnik – Since we Parted (world première)
Parry – Songs of Farewell
James MacMillan – Seven Angels – (world première)


This was a very thoughtfully imagined programme with a highly appropriate title. Surely the music of Parry, an eminent Victorian, would not sit comfortably with brand-new twenty-first century pieces? But Parry was by no means shaded in this company. Indeed, his mature, autumnal settings of visionary texts complemented the new music extremely well.

As well as Parry’s stirring setting of Blake’s words, in which we were all encouraged to join, he was also represented by his six Songs of Farewell. These are wonderful choral songs, among the finest in the repertory, in which Parry chose highly evocative texts and set them compellingly to music. Tonight’s performance was founded on great attention to detail but was also one which also conveyed the sweep of each of Parry’s settings. In truth, this was one of the finest accounts of the songs that I have heard, nuanced and keenly responsive both to the import of the words and to Parry’s expertly crafted and inspired music. Dynamics were very well observed – as, for instance, in the excellent contrasts at the start of ‘I know my soul hath power’. As the songs progress Parry expands from the four-part writing of the first two songs, adding thereafter an extra vocal line in each song until the last one, ‘Lord, let me know mine end’, is richly decked in eight-part writing. Jeffrey Skidmore and his excellent choir ensured that Parry’s part writing was clear at all times. The fifth song, ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’, is especially challenging with its many and frequent small changes of direction; it was the achievement of this performance that all these changes were assimilated and the flow of the music was never imperilled. In the concluding ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ Parry rises to new heights of eloquence and Ex Cathedra met the challenge in a performance which Skidmore shaped and shaded expertly. This was a deeply satisfying performance of these marvellous songs.

Roxanna Panufnik’s Since we Parted was commissioned by Ex Cathedra with the support of Jane Arthur. Jeffrey Skidmore had asked that the piece should remember the Great War and, if possible, should set words by or about women. Miss Panufnik combines lines by two poets. A verse by Robert Bulmer-Lytton (1831-1891), from which the work’s title derives, acts as a kind of refrain for the full choir and is heard on several occasions. In between the refrains come lines by Kathleen Coates (1890-1958) from a poem entitled ‘A Year and a Day’. The piece is scored for choir and a small ensemble of harp, piano, cello and a pair of trumpets, the latter being used with great restraint as far as dynamics are concerned. It plays for about ten minutes.

The refrain is wistful and quite gentle. I may be mistaken but I had the impression that the music was subtly varied at each re-appearance. The composer said that in this music she tried “to create a sense of yearning – with harmonies that lean into each other and suspensions that only partly resolve.” I’d say she succeeded. The Coates lines are set in two separate passages. The first is for female voices and here the textures were graceful and the music warm. The men have the second Coates passage and their music is more robust. The performance seemed, at a first hearing, to be expert and the composer, who was present, was clearly delighted.

It was as well, I think, that the two premières were separated by some fifty minutes – the time taken by the Parry songs and the interval – for the MacMillan piece was much more ambitious in scale and scope and presented far greater challenges, not least to the audience.

Seven Angels was commissioned by Ex Cathedra with the help of the Feeney Trust. Although the piece lasted just about 35 minutes by my watch its reach and ambition is far greater than this timescale would suggest. MacMillan has said that he was stimulated by the idea of – and here I paraphrase – building on Elgar’s vision of a trilogy of oratorios which would have seen The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) complemented by a final work, The Last Judgement.  Elgar never realised the third element of that trilogy but there was a fine symmetry in the notion that a modern composer should in some way carry on his line of thought in a work that was to be unveiled in the very hall where those two Elgar oratorios received their respective first performances.

MacMillan chose as his text lengthy passages from the Book of Revelation in which St John describes that part of his vision when seven angels appear in succession, each to blow a dread fanfare to usher in further apocalyptic events. The angels were represented by two trumpeters, here placed behind and above the choir, next to the organ console. These trumpeters contributed a series of arresting fanfares, using not only trumpets but also natural trumpets and shofars, the primitive ram’s horn trumpets of Old Testament times, one of which Elgar deployed tellingly in The Apostles. In addition to the trumpeters the small accompanying ensemble comprised harp, cello and a battery of percussion, played indefatigably by one percussionist. It should be said straightaway that one of MacMillan’s many achievements in this score is to conjure a tremendous variety of arresting colours from just these five instrumentalists. This is just one way in which the score is highly imaginative.

Just as impressive is his writing for the choir. They have many passages of homophonic or polyphonic writing. In addition various other vocal techniques are employed, including Sprechstimme, glissandi, humming, shouting and whistling. The whistling occurs just before the appearance of the seventh angel and I suspect it’s intended to convey the sound of a great wind; if so, it works brilliantly. Indeed, all the various non-singing techniques made their mark and were relevant to the moment in the text at which they occurred; in other words, these techniques were not employed just for effect.

The words are intensely dramatic and MacMillan’s vast experience as a composer both of religious music and of operas equipped him extremely well to surmount the challenges of the text. Among many passages that caught my ear was a section, just before the appearance of the seventh angel, when the cello and tubular bells initiate a fast dance, the rhythms of which are excitingly irregular. This dance is sustained when the choir enters and it’s extremely effective. Effective too were the four passages for solo voices – bass, tenor, alto and soprano successively – which illustrate the appearances of the first four angels. Most imposing of all, however, was the music at the point to which the whole work had surely been aimed: the words beginning “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. Here the whole ensemble was united in a luminous outburst which gradually unwound to be followed by several more similar explosions of fervour. The work finished with the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” The long silence that followed the conclusion of Seven Angels bore testimony to the power and eloquence of the piece we had just heard for the first time.

I confess that for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure what I would make of Seven Angels but this is a work that draws the listener in and which compels attention. The music is astonishingly inventive and imaginative, though I do wonder if the trumpet fanfares are not perhaps a little overdone. The performance by Ex Cathedra and the small instrumental ensemble was beyond praise. The music is clearly complex and extremely demanding yet not only was it put across with great assurance but also with the conviction that only thorough preparation and highly skilled execution can produce. The composer, who was enthusiastically applauded, looked delighted by the performance and I’m not surprised.

This was an unforgettable concert of memorable music superbly performed. I’m particularly keen to hear Seven Angels again for it is a profound and dramatic work that demands detailed listening and reflection; one hearing simply isn’t enough.

John Quinn

2 thoughts on “Ex Cathedra Thrillingly Unveil James MacMillan’s Visionary New Work”

  1. I could not agree more with this review. To be in the audience was an immense privilege. It truly was profoundly moving and an evening of extraordinary musicianship and commitment. Seven Angels has to be heard again and soon.


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