The Sixteen sing MacMillan's Stabat Mater

Album title:
Stabat Mater
The Sixteen; Britten Sinfonia/ Harry Christophers
Catalogue Number:
COR 16150
BBC Music Magazine
The Sixteen sing MacMillan's Stabat Mater

The string orchestra in James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater does much more than merely accompany the singers. The attenuated, anxious threnody at the work’s opening runs over four minutes; later in the same movement recurring whiplash chords mimic the piercing sorrows of Mary, and MacMillan conjures a manic flapping effect, like locusts’ wings beating, as the torments of the crucified Christ are contemplated. His vivid, trenchant string writing is realised with striking clarity by the Britten Sinfonia in this recording, made just a fortnight after the same performers gave the world premiere last October in London.

The Sixteen’s singing is predictably high in quality. Cries, shouts, whispers, glissandos, episodes of ululating melisma – all feature, as MacMillan rings the technical changes in his quest to render musically the visceral emotional content of the Stabat Mater text. No fewer than seven of the ensemble’s 26 singers have solos: the contributions of tenor Jeremy Budd stand out particularly for their plangency and eloquence. The work itself is unflinchingly intense and dark in complexion, rising to visionary heights in the last of its four movements. Here conductor Harry Christophers steers the supplicatory prayer for salvation to a rapt, mystical conclusion, the string writing again playing a major part in the expressive narrative.

Whether or not MacMillan totally succeeds in avoiding the difficulty he sees in sustaining the ‘persistent tone of pathos’ involved in a Stabat Mater setting is probably a moot question – but one which this excellent performance puts the listener in an ideal position to adjudicate.

Terry Blain

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