THE prolific composer Sir James MacMillan’s 43-minute, single-span A European Requiem, inspired by a dictum of Pope John Paul II, and first heard at the Oregon Festival in 2016, will have its European première in this year’s BBC Proms. But, elsewhere on the London musical scene, there has already been the world première of another MacMillan work, Blow the Trumpet in the New Moon.
This is a setting of what the composer calls “some joyful lines from the Geneva Bible version of Psalm 81, verses 1-4”: “Sing joyfully to God our strength . . . take the song, bring forth the timbrel . . .”, and, more famously, “Blow the trumpet in the new moon. . . For this is a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob.”
It is an exhilarating text. MacMillan, a National Youth Orchestra of Scotland trumpeter in his youth, and the composer, around the Millennium, of a vibrant Trumpet Concerto, and more recently, one for trombone, brought all his prodigious talents to providing the Bach Choir under David Hill at the Royal Festival Hall with a delicious celebratory “choral fanfare” as an apt challenge (all the more so, since it was an unaccompanied work for large chorus) for its 140th-anniversary season.
The writing for choir is charming, with MacMillan’s characteristic Celtic folk-derived melismas in evidence in the men’s as well as the soprano lines, some striking drones (again, a folk-inspired element) in the upper as well as lower voices, a thrilling “limping” rhythm (long-short-two longs) deployed like an energising ostinato, and an unexpected and disarming huge concluding cluster.
Modern Polish music is also a source: MacMillan is well acquainted with it, and studied for his doctorate, acquiring his gift for musical tautness, at Durham, under another superlative composer, John Casken, who was a pupil of Lutoslawski. (Casken’s opera Golem, based on that medieval myth of good and evil, cries out for a revival at Opera North).
From much study, James MacMillan knows the whole of musical history intimately, from the medieval to the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) and beyond.
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL had a similarly good grounding. He launched out from Hamburg and Hanover, before joining the Elector, by now King George I of England, in London. His supremely exciting and gloriously well-structured oratorio Samson emerged just a month after Messiah in August 1741.
Samson has just been championed at Stour Music, a festival founded by the countertenor Alfred Deller, and still run south of Canterbury by his son Mark, himself a celebrated former countertenor. Thanks to Deller’s undemonstrative but always shrewd direction, what this high-voltage concert revealed was not just Handel’s competence, his gift for characterising and shading, and for Baroque orchestral colouring, but also how he drew on an early journey to Italy, as well as on his Hamburg and Hanover colleagues and mentors, the Baroque opera composers Reinhard Kaiser and Agostino Steffani.
Once in England, Handel avidly devoured scores by Purcell, Lawes, Cook, and later Arne, and became almost the new English Purcell. Handel’s absorption of this compromise “Franco-English-Italian” style and technique made him, a German, the truly English composer he so instantly became.
Above all, if you listened intently to Samson here at Stour Valley, so thrillingly presented in a church (Boughton Aluph) whose choir layout is unique, even odd, and yet whose stones throw the side-placed chorus’s sound out and around to perfection, you can hear all these musical connections.
Sadly, the Irish writer Newburgh Hamilton’s (1691-1761) full text, drawn from Milton’s mid-17th-century drama Samson Agonistes, being obviously bulky, was not supplied (I think it should have been); but a brilliant synopsis, including the title or first line of every section, more than sufficed.
The soloists, being front-placed, were crystal clear. Among them, the characterful, bass-baritone Matthew Brook as the plotting Philistine spy chief/viceroy Harapha and the invariably wonderfully articulate and impassioned tenor Charles Daniels, as the eponymous hero — both singers are invited regularly to the festival, and thank goodness — were superb from start to finish. Not a single word got lost, was garbled, or was somehow missed.
Credit goes, above all, to Deller for keeping the 18 adroit strings and seven winds and brass (Alex Caldon supplied the important trumpet solos, surely to perfection) at the right levels for the voices, sometimes blasting, sometimes tenderly caressing for the other roles: the soprano Penelope Martin-Smith as the loyal Micah (a characterisation that oddly anticipates not just 18th/19th century soubrettes, but Puccini); the soprano Kathryn Jenkin as a snaky, two-timing, and impossibly vengeful Delilah, revelling in betrayal but, one hopes, extinguished in the great palace collapse; and the booming baritone Jozik Koc, as Samson’s touchingly understanding father Manoah, were all scintillating.
When the chorus realise the worst, and that their Dagon has lost, they are finally in their element. The last scenes really soared.