Jointly commissioned in 1998 by the Philadelphia Orchestra and BBC Proms, Quickening is a 45-minute cantata to a text by Michael Symmons Roberts that both celebrates and explores the themes of birth, new life and parenthood. “The title,” explains MacMillan, “refers explicitly to the instant of conception – ‘the quickening of seed that will become ripe grain’ – or the moment that a woman first feels her baby kick.” It’s a hugely ambitious but never intimidating canvas, the sizeable forces required (four solo voices, children’s chorus and chamber organ, mixed chorus and a large orchestra including triple woodwind and a battery of percussion) and MacMillan’s deployment of them inviting parallels with Britten’s War Requiem. After the expectant wonder and awe-struck mystery of the opening movement (“Incarnadine”), darker images of violence, menace, war and fragility occupy the two central tableaux (“Midwife” and “Poppies”), before the ecstatic apex and magical fade-out of “Living Water”. There’s absolutely no missing this music’s visceral impact, spiritual fervour and strength of conviction, attributes that should hopefully ensure it a place in the repertoire.
A powerful experience, in sum, and a work well worth getting to know. It’s preceded by the Three Interludes that MacMillan has drawn from his second opera. First staged in September 2007 by Welsh National Opera, The Sacrifice (with, again, a libretto by Symmons Roberts) is based upon an ancient Welsh tale (from The Mabinogion) of love, warring clans and self-sacrifice. Inspiration runs high in this communicative orchestral triptych, the second and third movements of which owe a not inconsiderable debt to the Passacaglia and Storm from Peter Grimes. It certainly whets the appetite for a complete recording of the opera.
Suffice it to say, the composer secures admirably disciplined and committed results from all involved. What’s more, Stephen Rinker’s sound boasts spectacular amplitude, definition and range; and David Nice supplies a customarily stylish and thought-provoking introductory essay.