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Edinburgh International Festival 2019: MacMillan birthday concerts - searing world premiere | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh International Festival 2019: MacMillan birthday concerts - searing world premiere

Edinburgh International Festival 2019: MacMillan birthday concerts - searing world premiere

Triumphant new choral symphony for our rudderless times

James MacMillan conducting his Second SymphonyAll concert images by Ryan Buchanan

To celebrate the 60th birthday of Sir James MacMillan, the Edinburgh International Festival has programmed his music over five concerts, including the Nash Ensemble with Fourteen Little Pictures, the National Youth Choir of Scotland with All the Hills and Vales Along, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Festival Chorus with the cantata Quickening. But the festival’s most unequivocal endorsement of Scotland’s leading composer came on Saturday evening in the Usher Hall, with four large-scale works, including a major world premiere, performed over two concerts in the late afternoon and evening.

It’s something of a gamble, even in the febrile atmosphere of a festival, to programme a contemporary composer quite so exclusively, but for Edinburgh it was handsomely vindicated – while the earlier concert at 5pm drew a respectable house, the later performance was packed to the rafters with an audience keen to hear the first ever performance of Le grand Inconnu, MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony, an epic choral meditation on the Holy Spirit (★★★★★).

And were they pleased with what they witnessed? You bet. Seldom if ever have I seen the Usher Hall audience, staid at the best of times, rise to its feet to cheer the composer of a new work with such heartfelt enthusiasm. This was music whose dramatic poise and deep poignancy reflects MacMillan’s stature as a figure of cultural and national importance, and not just in Scotland. Is it too much to suggest that in the increasing moral and political vacuum of our affairs of state, we heard in this music the triumphant reassertion of the values of love, tolerance, and hope?Harry Christophers in MacMillan premiereIt is certainly music of astonishing beauty and clarity, and it was impeccably performed under the baton of Harry Christophers (pictured above) with The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen (effectively a boot camp for aspiring choristers), and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The symphony is broadly elegiac in tone, falling into three movements: "Ruah" (Hebrew for breath), "Zao" (Greek for living water) and "Igne vel Igne" (Latin for fire or fire). The texts come from the Bible, St John of the Cross, and the great creation hymn Veni Creator Spiritus by Rabanus Maurus (famously used in Mahler’s 8th symphony).

The symphony begins imperceptibly with the sound of breathing – albeit interrupted by the clattering of a seat in the upper circle. To me, this conjured the vision of an immense seascape, into which pebbly interjections from the brass brought a feeling of increasing agitation, culminating in a grandiloquent choral setting of the word Ruah. Rhythmically simple, but harmonically dense with microtonal chromaticism, this first passionate outpouring with full orchestra, not unlike "Daybreak" from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, sets the tone for the entire symphony – its melodic breadth and confidence mirrored in the movements to come.

MacMillan has a Mahlerian capriciousness with his use of text – jumbling and jigsawing words from multiple sources and languages to create a seamless flow. But his choral writing is radiant and even if its influences are never far beneath the surface its originality is indisputable. On the word "spiritus", for example, bass voices hold a deep pedal note while the upper voices drift towards that melodic serenity we associate with Hildegard of Bingen. Later in the second movement, a 20-part polyphonic setting of "In novissimo autem" (from John in the Vulgate bible) is an exquisitely beautiful piece of a cappella writing that will almost certainly be picked up by sophisticated choirs seeing to broaden their range. Choir in MacMillan premiereIn the third movement the same applies to arguably an even more gorgeous setting of "O living flame of love" (St John of the Cross), whose only disappointment was that it was not repeated when the words return at the very end of the symphony.

As befits a choral symphony, it is the chorus (pictured above) that steals this show; whether on their own, or accompanied, as in the gracious setting of "The wind blows" (John), The Sixteen and their cohorts sounded magnificent. I have made no mention of the four superb soloists drawn from the choir who come forward in the second movement for melismatic and romantic settings of watery words, and little mention of the virtuosic orchestra, a fitting and textural counterpoint to the lavish choral writing. All in all a wonderful piece that I hope to hear again.

With Le grand Inconnu as the climax of the evening, what of the three pieces that preceded it (★★★)? They fade slightly in the memory. At 5pm we heard A Scotch Bestiary (2004), a somewhat cheeky concertante work for organ and very large orchestra (the BBC Scottish under the efficient baton of Joana Carniero), a piece whose chief merit is to show off the capacity of the Usher’s restored Norman and Beard organ not only to create a great wall of sound-filled air but also to make strange barking noises and petulant wheezes using the more obscure stops. James MacMillan at 60This was followed by Woman of the Apocalypse (2012), a concerto for orchestra inspired by a range of visual art from Rubens to Dürer. Curiously, where the Bestiary was acknowledged as modelled on Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I found the Apocalypse heavy with references to other composers: a Mahlerian opening, a steely grey dawn straight out of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, and a serpentine Straussian string quartet.

MacMillan (pictured above by Marc Marnie) himself took the baton for his Second Symphony – the first piece in the second concert. Dating from 1999, it is short, but not particularly concise. The orchestration is original – a typical moment might have a single held high string note underpinned by a rumbling bass drum and interweaved by a rollicking clarinet – and there are some interesting side-swipes at Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but this is a difficult piece to love, especially when remembered alongside the glorious Fifth.

Comments

MacMillan's new symphony. Le Grand Inconnu, can be heard live in London at the Barbican on 14 October.

Can't wait: The Sixteen's performance of his Stabat Mater there was amazing. Shall duly add as link at bottom of the review.

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