Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Let There Be Light review – a new work from James MacMillan

15 March 2024

BBC Symphony Orchestra and James MacMillan deliver succinct accounts of Pärt, Britten, Rautavaara and a UK première from the composer/conductor.

James MacMillan/BBCSO

BBC Symphony Orchestra & James MacMillan (Photo: BBC/Mark Allan)

I first heard Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten back in 1979, when the serene, tonal works of ‘the Holy Minimalists’ such as Pärt and Tavener were beginning their pushback against the spikier writing of the 20th century Modernists. The style is boringly ubiquitous these days, particularly in church music, but that quiet, comfortable revolution made an impression back then, and Pärt’s work of deceptively tranquil complexity, still has the power to move. James MacMillan, arguably Britain’s finest living composer (and the presentation to him of an Ivors Academy Fellowship during the concert surely acknowledged this) is also an excellent conductor, his fluid yet punctilious style leaving the forces under his baton in no doubt as to what is required. The BBCSO responded with their usual excellence at Friday evening’s concert at Barbican Hall, to deliver a luminous performance of Cantus… in which a seamless string tone, perfect intonation, and careful attention to the piece’s slow dynamic were paramount.

By the time the 25 year old Benjamin Britten wrote Sinfonia da Requiem, his deeply cerebral approach to composition had settled in, and the work is full of his ‘because I can’, somewhat buttoned-up responses to more experimental European Modernism. For those of us who are not members of the Britten fan club, the piece can be 20 minutes of eye rolling at the over-fussy, purse-lipped musical architecture. MacMillan and the orchestra, though, got behind the spirit of the work, and gave it an excellent performance, banging home, with quiet exactitude, the uncomfortable, tolling ostinati and chilly, incessant tritones of the first movement to summon the bleak, thorny landscape the composer intended. The skipping strings, flutter-tonguing flutes and flatulent brass of the second, Dies Irae, movement were delivered with meticulous briskness, and the gallop of the whole thing was nicely controlled, as was the dynamic – allowing space for that fatuous little trumpet fanfare and the angular saxophone solo (excellent work by Martin Robertson) to shine. The third movement allows a little warmth to disperse the unrelenting asceticism, and the orchestra responded with suitably moderate gusto, the strings permitting a little lushness to replace their edgy quality, and the brass seeming to apply a hot water bottle to their tone. The movement’s slow, stately twirl was judged perfectly for character and speed, and the almost hummable melody at the close was administered with just the right doses of glitter and sonority.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s music often has that highly attractive luminous quality to it frequently found in the works of Finnish composers. The string orchestra piece Into the Heart of Light (as its name would suggest) displays this to the max in its rich textures, and in the contrasting of its cool contrapuntal passages and warm bursts of homophony. From the intense upward swirling of the low strings at the outset, carefully measured for tone and dynamic, we were in no doubt that the piece was in safe hands. MacMillan shaped the dynamic shifts with elegant gestures, and the work’s character was further enhanced by the subtle changes in string tone from opulent to almost metallic – particularly noticeable in the violins, where this bright edginess really brought out the resultant harmonics from the note clusters such that you would swear that an ondes Martenot had suddenly made a guest appearance.

” …a seamless string tone, perfect intonation, and careful attention to the piece’s slow dynamic were paramount”

James MacMillan/BBCSO

James MacMillan receives his Ivors Academy Fellowship from Academy Chair, Tom Gray (Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel)

The final work in the programme was the UK première of MacMillan’s Fiat Lux (‘Let there be Light’) for baritone and soprano soloists, chorus, orchestra and organ. The text, in both Latin and English, incorporates scripture as well as a poem by Dana Gioia. It explores the divine gift of light, and MacMillan, no stranger to the rhythm of the liturgy, sets it in five beautifully constructed movements that take us from the timeless words of the opening verses of Genesis, through contemplation of the aspects of light in nature, to the theme of Christ as Light of the World, and closing on the light on the ‘crystal spire’ of Christ Cathedral, California, for the consecration of which the work was commissioned.

Here, once again, the orchestra, joined by the BBC Symphony Chorus, rose to the occasion to give a pitch-perfect performance (albeit that Barbican Hall was not perhaps the best venue to hear it; the more generous acoustic of a cathedral would seem to suit its sonorities better). MacMillan chooses a breathiness from shimmering strings and breathed-down brass  for the voice of God, the deity’s multi-faceted nature painted chorally by low chanting from the tenors and basses and busy, warbling melismatic runs from the upper voices. He opts not for Haydn’s crash on ‘and there was light’, but a more sustained crescendo that ends in glistening splashes of tuned percussion, swirls of strings and trumpets and massive organ chords.

The solo roles were taken by Mary Bevan and Roderick Williams, who sing much of their cadenza-like material without accompaniment, occasionally as a duet. Bevan delivered her angular lines with clarity and a sure sense of the arc of the writing. Williams has a beautiful voice, and while he was just as sure and controlled with his material, it needed a much bigger vocal presence with more heft in the lower harmonics, and he was somewhat swamped in the duets.

The hallmarks of the piece are the contrasts between busy twittering (often with repeated words) and the slow delivery of sinuous – if slightly awkward – lines, and both chorus and orchestra managed this well, albeit that there was occasionally some hoarseness in the high tenor passages. The ghost of Britten made a reappearance for the final ‘Cathedral of Light’ movement, which immediately brought to mind the closing hymn (‘God moves in a mysterious way’) of his cantata Saint Nicolas.

• The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds until mid-April

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