MacMillan choral day review – an angry and affecting Stabat Mater

Barbican, London
Harry Christophers’ Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia gave the world premiere of MacMillan’s powerful and haunting new choral work

There’s surely no living composer of James MacMillan’s stature who has concentrated so much on choral music, or who has made his Catholic faith so central to what he writes. Appropriately, the Barbican’s day celebrating his choral music spanned church and concert hall, with a London premiere in the medieval setting of St Giles’ Cripplegate, followed by a world premiere in the Barbican Hall.

MacMillan’s new Stabat Mater, the focus of the evening concert, is a result of the composer’s continuing relationship with the Sixteen and the Genesis Foundation, which commissioned the work, and is something MacMillan says he has been working towards, consciously or not, for years. It’s a substantial setting of the 13th-century text depicting Mary weeping by the cross, lasting 50 minutes and cast in four movements.

The task of embodying the words is borne not only by the singers but a string orchestra – here the Britten Sinfonia. So, if one were to listen without enough engagement with the text, it might seem the choral flow was disjointed, interrupted by so many orchestral episodes. But then MacMillan is never one for using words as vehicles for vocal mellifluousness. While passages of the choral writing are undeniably beautiful, often MacMillan’s response to the text involves something spikier, perhaps onomatopoeic. The strings evoke long, laboured breaths; the choir slithers down while the orchestra slides up to take over with stabbing chords; the men shout or whisper. Since the start of his career, MacMillan’s music has often been strongest when he brings all his forces closely together in pitch, so that the sound burgeons and the ear can’t process where each detail is coming from. There is a lot of that here in this angry, affecting score.

The concert, which also featured a glowing performance of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia from the Britten Sinfonia, had begun with MacMillan’s Miserere, a more straightforward choral anthem written in 2009 and already widely heard thanks to the Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage concerts. Texts such as this and the Stabat Mater come freighted with tradition, and in the Miserere, MacMillan more than nods to this by setting whole verses to the chant Allegri used in his iconic 17th-century setting. It’s a yearning, haunting anthem with a final verse that is comforting in, for MacMillan, an unusually sweet way.

The afternoon concert, given by Ex Cathedra under its conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, had begun amiably enough, with Copland’s In the Beginning, a setting of the first chapter or so of the Bible. With mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan as the radiant soloist, the choir’s telling of the creation story seemed, with hindsight, the calm before the storm that was MacMillan’s Seven Angels – a depiction of nothing less than the end of the world. This sets some of the more gruesome verses of Revelation, punctuated by rams’-horn trumpets, with a choir deploying all MacMillan’s sliding, shouting, whistling effects, backed up by harp, cello and the busy percussionist Simone Rebello. It was a powerful, intense performance, with an ending that felt less redemptive, more plain terrifying.

• At St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, 18 October. Box office: 01904 651 485. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 28 October. Box office: 0161-907 9000.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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