James MacMillan: Symphony No.5

James MacMillan
Symphony No. 5 Le grand Inconnu & The Sun Danced
The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen + Alumni, Britten Sinfonia
Mary Bevan, Harry Christophers
Coro COR16179.78’54

You wouldn’t normally associate The Sixteen with a recording of a Symphony. But with their continuing involvement with the music of Sir James MacMillan, which included giving the premiere of his Stabat Mater in 2016, it was perhaps inevitable that, with his thoughts of making his next symphony a chorale piece, a commission was put together for a choral symphony, sponsored by the Genesis Foundation. This is the premiere recording, made live at a concert in The Barbican, London, on 14 October.

The recording opens with The Sun Danced, commissioned by the Shrine of Fatima for the 2017 centennial celebration of the Apparitions of Fatima. It starts with phrases from the first apparition of the Angel in spring and summer of 1916, notably near the start with the repeated phrase Orai comigo (Pray with me). After a Sanctissimae Trinitatis Pater hymn before. soprano soloist Mary Beven sings the words (apparently) of the Virgin Mary during her appearance on 13 June 1917, with the promise of a forthcoming ‘miracle’.

The chorus references some of the documented exclamations (in Portuguese) of that miracle, the ‘Miracle of the Sun’  (13 October 2017), during the orchestra’s depiction of the sun ‘dancing’ in a climactic interlude. The piece finished with a soprano solo to James MacMillan’s own (Portuguese) text reflecting Mary’s story and a chorus coda to the words Ave Maria in Greek, Portuguese and Latin to an orchestral clamour. At times, there is an almost romantic lushness in the orchestral score. It is an evocative half-hour of music, albeit on a topic that might escape the understanding of those not of a Catholic persuasion.

The 5th Symphony Le grand Inconnu was commissioned by Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. It lasts for about 50 minutes, and is in three connected movements – Ruah, Zao, Igne vel igne, signifying breath, water, and fire. Sir James MacMillan’s own description of the piece can be seen here.

It opens with the sound of breaths from the choir, evolving into the word Ruah, Pneuma and Spiritus, the Hebrew, Greek and Latin for ‘breath’. After an orchestral climax, texts from St John of the Cross are interspersed with Biblical texts, the textures and volumes ebbing and flowing until the climactic conclusion where the choir loudly acclaims the sound of the “rushing mighty wind” from heaven, while the orchestra whirls and blusters. The sung text is not always clear from the choir, so the leaflet texts are useful, not least for those whose knowledge of Catholic mysticism is a bit of a mystery.

The second movement opens with a more ethereal orchestral background of a harp with chants of Mayim Chayim, Zao, the Hebrew and Greek for ‘Living Water’ before Julie Cooper, the first of four soloists, sings ‘The rivers are yours’, text from St John of the Cross. She is later joined by Kim Porter, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies as the woodwind create musical eddies and undercurrents around the sung words. It builds to a concluding climax with the chorus and the words of Jesus: ‘rivers of living waters will flow from within them’. It stops very suddenly, mid-flow.

The third movement, Igne vel igne, (Latin for ‘Fire or fire’) opens with the sotto voce chorus ‘O living flame of love / That tenderly wounds my soul’. The mood is generally meditative, the orchestra speaking in a range of repetitive textural interventions. The chorus intone Esh Pyr, the Hebrew and Greek for ‘Fire’, before an extract from the Latin Veni Creator Spitius.

The harmonies throughout are relatively straightforward in comparison to several other MacMillan works, and the whole work is, at least musically, more approachable than many. The performance is impressive, given that it was recorded live. If there was any patching, it is not noticeable. The music will appeal to lovers of MacMillan’s compositional style but is perhaps also a good introduction for those not so familiar. The religious element is clearly very close to MacMillan’s heart, but it need not be an obstacle to those who just want to enjoy the rich musical tapestry that he depicts. The same could be said of a lot of Bach, of course.