tue 21/11/2017

MacMillan's Stabat Mater, The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

MacMillan's Stabat Mater, The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia, Barbican Hall

MacMillan's Stabat Mater, The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia, Barbican Hall

Perfect world premiere of a spiritual masterpiece for choir and strings

The composer (right) takes a bow with conductor Harry ChristophersBoth images by Mark Allan for the Barbican

No living composer writes more compellingly for choir or for strings than James MacMillan (a surprisingly accepted "Sir" is now an optional addition to the name). This beautifully planned programme's first half gave us the former, a cappella choral music at its most masterly in the setting of the Miserere premiered by The Sixteen in 2009, before Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis lay down the gauntlet for the latter. Both were matched - though it would be hard to surpass them - in the world premiere of a masterpiece combining the two forces, MacMillan's Stabat Mater.

Post-concert audience chatter was rife comparing the composer's latest religious offering with its many predecessors. MacMillan's singular pitting of spirituality against violence reached its first great apogee in The World's Ransoming, occasionally overshooting the mark in overscored excess - at least in my opinion - in the St John Passion; no danger of that here with an absence of brass and percussion. Some listeners preferred The Seven Last Words, from the final high violin notes of which the Stabat Mater takes different directions; another I heard afterwards complaining that MacMillan's usual components of fragmentary lyricism, pathos and aggression were business as usual, just in a different order. But there were new sounds here, striking melodic ideas and for me, at least, a total integrity and depth in the way they were assimilated. To judge from the intense audience silence nearly throughout, many others must have felt the same.

Throughout the many wrenching contrasts there's always a focused emotional thread

A great master conscious of a tradition will know where to place major and minor triads for maximum impact without ever going for that easy "spiritual high" which MacMillan has always disdained. Maybe you wished that fugitive visions like the high lying violin solos towards the ends of the outer movements - taken with other-worldly restraint by leader Thomas Gould - would stay just that little bit longer, that the ravishing circling idea treated in semi-fugal fashion from the basses going up in the third section might return. But there was enough here for visceral impact, starting with the mother's shock when the 13th century Marian hymn first confronts her with "the pangs of her glorious son". Tenderness gives way to frenzy here in a crystallisation of extremes. Jesus giving up the Ghost is later depicted in the eery grace of string harmonics. (Pictured below: Harry Christophers conducting both The Sixteen-plus and the Britten Sinfonia).

Harry Christophers conducting The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia

Throughout the many wrenching contrasts there's always a focused emotional thread, going deepest perhaps at the very heart of the work (the end of "Quis non posset contristari" - " Who would not grieve with her" - and the beginning of "Sancta Mater, istud agas" - "Holy Mother, this I pray"). The solos are as well placed as the collective utterances, the most striking perhaps the agonised mesh of individual tenor voices. And MacMillan makes the final path to "the glory of paradise" no easy apotheosis.

In the earlier Miserere, you know when you're reaching the final goal. In a much shorter span, the shape and variety are no less impressive, with the familiar thumbprints of eastern intervals and Celtic-inspired ornaments woven into a compelling whole. No praise would be too high for the range of The Sixteen, from seraphic notes on the brink of audibility to a richness of which a Russian choral ensemble would be proud (and there's a hint of the way Rachmaninov harmonises his Kievan chants for his All-Night Vigil in MacMillan's similar treatment here).

Nor could the actual string sound from the Britten Sinfonia in the Tallis Fantasia be faulted; perspectives aren't easy to achieve in the Barbican Hall, but with the second orchestra sounding from the back of the platform, it all worked here. Perhaps Harry Christophers missed just that last degree of rubatoed floating, but his guidance was always assured. And the Fantasia was immensely enriched by The Sixteen delivering the original Tallis chant set to Archbishop Matthew Parker's versification of Psalm Two. Perfect programming, then, and the end certainly crowned the joint works. I'd join a choir again just to sing the Stabat Mater, and I wanted to see a score immediately. Alas, the giver was nowhere to be found; but there will be time enough as this masterpiece - let's say it again - finds its place in the repertoire.

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