Something Old, Something New: MacMillan conducts MacMillan  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom James MacMillan: The Sixteen, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Harry Christophers / Sir James MacMillan (conductors), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 23.3.2017. (SRT)

MacMillan – Tryst; Stabat Mater (Scottish premiere)

James MacMillan is one of the most important voices in contemporary British music, and certainly one of the most widely performed. His music features prominently and frequently across the major ensembles north of the border, and there’s especially a lot about this season. The two things that are most commonly cited about him are his Scottishness and his devoutly held Catholic faith, and those two things came together in this concert.

For all the number of times I’ve heard his work in Edinburgh, I’ve never seen him conduct it himself, so it was a treat to see him conducting the SCO himself in Tryst, a work from 1989. It’s one of several of his compositions to flow from his 1984 setting of William Soutar’s poem, The Tryst (a Scots word for an encounter) which, with its themes of desire, fulfilment and loss, has provided a fruitful seam for him to mine. This purely orchestral composition features lyrical references to the original song in its central section, but it’s a varied, often violent journey to get there, with writing that seems to push the winds to their very limits (the skirling clarinets of the opening caught the hall’s acoustic in an almost nasty way), and strings that seem to have the narrative energy of a film soundtrack. A dialogue between the strings and timps becomes violent, before dissolving into a beautifully warm sound for the invocation of the song itself. By the end of the work, the violence of the outer sections sits alongside the calm of the song setting, as though the two elements, together with what they symbolise, have learnt to live alongside one another in co-existence.

The main event, however, was the Scottish premiere of MacMillan’s Stabat Mater, a work that has generated a lot of coverage since its premiere in October 2016.  MacMillan’s vision of the Stabat Mater is refracted through his lifetime’s experience of Catholic worship (he sang it as a boy in school and in his local parish church), but also through profound personal loss. He wrote it when his five-year-old granddaughter was gravely ill – she died between the work’s completion and first performance – and he has spoken of how much of his music was affected by the power of her short life and the trauma of losing her. Consequently, this is a work that aspires to both the universal and the deeply personal, and that makes it a deeply powerful experience.

MacMillan wrote it for The Sixteen, and it’s a compliment to the work that they have come north to give it its Scottish premiere with the SCO. The piece seems to stutter into life with tentative string harmonics, already laden with pathos, that then build to a mood of great intensity. That’s indicative of one of the work’s greatest strengths: each movement takes us on a journey, whether to reinforce a particular musical idea or to challenge it and take the listener to a new place. Either way, it’s enormously satisfying, both musically and emotionally, and there is variety in a changing soundscape that, nevertheless, anchors the listener and gives security.

That opening, for example, builds to the chorus’ first entry which sounds almost defiant, calling out their lines against the strings’ jagged responses which can’t help but put you in mind, in Simeon’s words, of the sword that pierces the Virgin’s soul.  The mood of the whole first section is undeniably bleak, a desertscape in sound, but there is a build-up throughout, and you notice that most obviously in the unnerving tremolos that rise up from the basses at the start of the second section. The third section, beginning on “Sancta Mater” opens in a declamatory style before being overtaken by a strange, eerie quartet of tenors, and MacMillan later uses the harmonics of the cellos to suggest the terror of the flames of hell.

The work culminates in a gorgeous evocation of the soul’s destiny in heaven, drawing from MacMillan the richest playing and singing of the whole night, with a string threnody that is strangely moving. Even here, however, he seems to cast a shadow of danger over the piece because the solo violin, which is so consolatory elsewhere in the work, plays alone at the very top of its range, sounding angelic and airborne, but also very effortful, as though the sufferings we have witnessed are not so easily turned away from.

The Sixteen sing the work with the purity and beauty that attracted MacMillan to them in the first place, and the orchestra triumphantly matched them with playing of extraordinary commitment. Indeed, so involved was Harry Christophers in the unfolding score that it took him several moments to notice that one of the singers had, unfortunately, collapsed during the work’s final section. (She was helped from the stage during a rather tense pause, so let’s hope she is OK.) The Sixteen have also recorded the work. Reviewing that recording, Richard Morrison of The Times described it as Macmillan’s “choral masterpiece – and that’s saying something.” He is right. It’s a triumph that deserves to be heard.

Incidentally, it’s telling that a concert featuring only the music of one contemporary composer should be able to fill Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall with an enthusiastic audience. How many other composers today could command a loyal audience like that?

Simon Thompson

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