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Music review: Fiat Lux by Sir James MacMillan (Barbican, London)

by
05 April 2024

Roderic Dunnett hears another large choral work by MacMillan

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THE Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan conducted his latest large choral work, Fiat Lux, for its UK première at the Barbican Hall, London, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. He was already established as a central figure in the music of this island well before his orchestral drama The Confession of Isobel Gowdie had its first outing at the BBC Proms in 1990.

His now vast output has frequently centred on the persecuted and suffering: in particular, on los desaparecidos, victims of the Argentinian dictatorship, and the issue of South American liberation theology. His opera Inés de Castro explores a young female royal victim of Spanish-Portuguese hatred in the 14th century. Isobel Gowdie censures the mid-17th century witch-hunts.

The BBC chorus’s part in Fiat Lux was mainly, though not entirely, in Latin. MacMillan, as a deep-thinking Roman Catholic, has no trouble in working in this language, and his symphonies and concertos often bear Latin titles. Fiat Lux — “Let There Be Light” — belongs among his finest works to date. It is scored for large orchestra, large chorus, and two soloists. Both — soprano (Mary Bevan) and baritone (Roderick Williams) — delivered superlative performances.

In Part Four, the baritone intones “You are the Light of the World” (described as an arioso), in one of the five sections in which, as so often before, the composer reveals phenomenal skill in the deployment of percussion (plus harp and celesta) — also evident where it underscores or battles the chorus in the third section.

The soprano is given rein, both opening the third section (“Litany of Light”) and in the fourth. She pairs appealingly with her opposite number twice, as in the section “Hymn: Cathedral of Light”.

A salient fact about MacMillan is his endless ability to avoid cliché: though he is steeped in great musical works of the past, we hear his distinctive voice.

The opening movement is extraordinarily dark and mysterious. The fourth demonstrates a miraculous use of soft percussion. The third is positively explosive: Macmillan has written excitingly at full belt ever since one of his most massive early works, Into the Ferment (now happily recorded on Chandos). Part Three turns into a remarkable dancing mode: contrast is something that he learned early.

The occasion was special, not just because MacMillan was being awarded a Fellowship of the Ivors Academy (following John Rutter last November), but because the rest of the programme consisted of works chosen by and, he explained, influential for him. He conducted possibly an apt forerunner, a very late 15-minute work by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016) (which I found dull and repetitive, however), and elicited from the orchestra a stunning reading of the Estonian Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, written in 1977, the year after Britten died. It was a deeply moving highlight of this concert.

Ending the first half, there was a superb choice: Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. All too rarely heard, it is — like his Violin Concerto or his song cycle Our Hunting Fathers — to be counted among the works at the apex of his non-operatic output.

In this truly uplifting concert, the BBC’s chorus, meticulously trained by Neil Ferris, was on its toes, undeniably confident, and equally expressive in Latin or English in MacMillan’s latest masterpiece.

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