MACMILLAN Since it was the Day of Preparation
Few composers in recent times have so unequivocally brought their faith into the concert arena as has James MacMillan. Here we have the latest in a stream of major works which express his deeply held Catholicism, and for my money it is by far and away the most effective. Combining elements inspired by plainchant, Scottish folk melody, Arabic dance (the Interlude which concludes the first part), Renaissance music, Bach, Stravinsky and Britten (most notably at the start of the second part), the language is uniquely and undeniably MacMillan’s own, as is the highly unusual decision to set a Biblical text which has rarely been set before in any period of musical history.
Something of a sequel to his earlier St John Passion, and cast in three parts which run continuously, Since it was the Day of Preparation… sets the final section of St John’s Gospel, encompassing the period from the death of Christ through the Resurrection to his final dismissal of the disciples. The text, as MacMillan shows, has plenty of opportunity for dramatic colour as well as for introspection, but perhaps it is this latter element which is most potently brought out in this outstanding recording, made in the generous environment of the RSNO’s centre in Glasgow.
It is scored for the curious instrumental line-up of harp, theorbo, cello, clarinet and horn, with occasional additional bells which MacMillan himself plays on this recording, and the text is delivered by a quintet of solo voices, which, especially when sung with such delicious clarity as Synergy Vocals here, creates a wonderfully transparent quality, even in the murky waters of the Sea of Tiberius which wash in at the start of the third part. Brindley Sherratt is the superbly resonant bass who sings the words of Christ, but tenor Benedict Hymans deserves special mention for his enchanting delivery of the opening verses of the text.
These were the performers who premiered the work at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, and they have performed it several times since. So by the time they committed it to disc, they had developed a real affinity for it, and this informs every moment of this intensely moving performance. Directed by the work’s dedicatee, William Conway (who has, most effectively, the last word in the recording), the Hebrides Ensemble – each member of which is allotted a substantial solo in the interludes that punctuate the sung sections – provide eloquent testimony to the sustained impact of MacMillan’s writing.