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Bevan, The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen, Christophers, Barbican review - MacMillan transcends again | reviews, news & interviews

Bevan, The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen, Christophers, Barbican review - MacMillan transcends again

Bevan, The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen, Christophers, Barbican review - MacMillan transcends again

Thoughtful showcasing of UK and London premieres for the Scotish composer's latest

James MacMillan with Mary Bevan and Harry Christophers after the performance of 'The Sun Danced'Both images by Mark Allan/Barbican

Verdi, Elgar, Janáček, John Adams - just four composers who achieved musical transcendence to religious texts as what convention would label non-believers, and so have no need of the "forgiveness" the Fátima zealots pray for their kind in James MacMillan's The Sun Danced. Dodgily championed by fellow conservative Damian Thompson - ouch - as "fearless defender of the Catholic faith and Western civilization" (for which I read, no Muslims in Europe, please), MacMillan is rather nauseatingly cited as a composer with a direct line to his Catholic God (he doesn't claim that himself); but, dammit, he does hit the transcendental and the other-worldly an awful lot. Call it musical inspiration from a mysterious source if you like, but it's the real thing, and puts him alongside the above doubters.

The Big One on last night's fascinating Barbican programme, commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and the Sixteen and first heard at the Edinburgh Festival (where The Arts Desk's Christopher Lambton received it ecstatically), was his Fifth Symphony. subtitled "Le grand Inconnu", a French phrase for the mystery of he Holy Spirit. Certainly this elusive theme is hauntingly caught at the onset by the coming to being of Breath, acclaimed in four different languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English) and shapes up as another "In the Beginning" along the lines of Wagner's Rheingold Prelude; we even get the Rhinemaidens' acclamation of the gold in one of those lurid if not downright kitschy moments of which MacMillan is unafraid.

His choral writing both here and in the more straightforward Fatima celebration is, as always, consummate, halfway at one point to the 40 voices of Tallis's Spem in Alium. And both works show unique orchestral brilliance, daunting in the war-tattoos which give the Fátima ritual some universality as a plea for peace in 1917, peaking in the astonishment of the symphony's central apostrophes to "living water" where at one point strings go presto-feral against accented low-brass triads. The final movement of "Le Grand Inconnu" is less of an apotheosis than the quasi-Orthodox blazes at the end of  The Sun Danced. Was I moved? Not as much as during the previous Genesis commission, the Stabat Mater, and not enough to stand like the greater part of the audience, but both works are effective in communicating widely without compromising with anything saccharine, and will repay regular listening. Barbican performance of 'Le grand Inconnu'Whether the opening diptych of Arvo Pärt's Cantus to the Memory of Benjamin Britten and Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia - from A minor to A major in the twinkling of an eye - was MacMillan's idea or Christophers', I don't know, but it laid masterly ground for the younger composer's scalic patterns and choral complexity to come.

In the relentless beam of Barbican acoustics, Pärt's kicks and jabs as the strings descend ever so gradually to a baseline only highlighted the individuality in one of his earliest returns to the essence (can it be nearly 40 years since I first heard it, as an unexpected encore to a Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra London concert conducted by a then unknown-to-us Neeme Järvi?). A much-augmented Britten Sinfonia packed all the punches necessary throughout the evening, while The Sixteen (actually 24, and later to be joined by their younger companions in the Genesis Sixteen) projected the meaning of Auden's wonderful homage to the Patron Saint of music, celebrated on Britten's birthday, with wonderful lightness of touch under Christophers.

Special kudos both here and in the Symphony to high-wire Sixteen soprano Julie Cooper, not oveshadowed by Mary Bevan's soprano solos in The Sun Danced (a Virgin wrapped in cotton wool, perhaps, but sympathetic and note-perfect all the same). The good news is that both the MacMillan works were recorded for release on The Sixteen's Coro label; so there will be a chance soon enough to get to know them better.

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