JAMES MACMILLAN (b.1959): Symphony No. 5 for Chorus and Orchestra “Le grand Inconnu”, The Sun Danced for Soprano, Chorus and Orchestra.
Catalogue Number: 04V001
Description: These works are among MacMillan's most impressive achievements to date - which is saying a lot, in the light of the magnitude and magnificence of his previous output. The symphony explores the theme of the Holy Spirit, but in a visceral, dramatic, truly symphonic sense, not as a liturgical work. Setting texts of St John of the Cross and from the Bible, the work is in three movements evoking breath, water and fire. It begins with elemental sounds, generated by unorthodox choral and instrumental effects. The eruption of the movement's first monumental climax, like a great inhalation and exhalation of breath, is a thrilling moment. The blazing tonal harmony of this, and the subsequent, ever more ecstatic climaxes with their increasingly propulsive momentum, announce the Holy Spirit as a "rushing mighty wind". Typically of the composer, the richly polyphonic choral writing often evokes chant-based polyphony, and the overall idiom is one of direct and accessible extended tonality. The second movement, "Zao" (living water) presents another attribute of the Holy Spirit, at first in imitative sounds and textures from orchestra and choir, before swelling to a mighty torrent that sweeps in the visionary verses of St John of the Cross intoned by the soloists over rippling, dancing accompaniments, which swell to a surging dance of great waters. The movement concludes with a serene but exultant choral climax. The finale portrays the Holy Spirit as fire, beginning with a gorgeous choral presentation of a visionary poem by St John of the Cross. Tongues of fire shoot up, and the music takes on an increasingly monumental aspect, with bright metallic chimes over subterranean rumblings. A noble, Brucknerian section ensues, leading to the final chorus, and the work ends with the whole orchestra tolling like a gigantic bell before the dancing tongues of flame return to propel the symphony to its close. The subject of the half-hour sacred cantata The Sun Danced is the miraculous events that occurred in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917, when apparitions of an angel and the Virgin Mary were followed by the 'Miracle of the Sun'. The work opens and closes with sections of breathtaking beauty and grandeur; a Trinitarian prayer for the choir, and a hushed, profoundly beautiful Marian meditation, the text of which appears to be by the composer after fragments of the liturgy associated with Fátima. It is not without its drama too; the piece is infused with mystery and power, and the apparitions are intensely dramatic, though the narrative of Mary in particular is serene and benevolent, as she must have appeared to the children who experienced the vision even as she delivered her stern admonitions for an end to the war. The dance itself is appropriately explosive and ecstatic. The work’s sumptuous choruses are closer to a neo-romantic reimagining of the English choral tradition than the symphony, while remaining original in harmony and texture; the solo part is of the highest level of quasi-operatic expressiveness, and the orchestral accompaniment rapt or blazingly energetic, as appropriate. Texts included. Mary Bevan (soprano), the Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia; Harry Christophers.