James MacMillan
Stabat Mater
...preceded by Plainsong
The Sixteen

Britten Sinfonia
Harry Christophers

Recorded 31 October & 1 November 2016 in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
CD No: CORO 16150
Duration: 60 minutes
Reviewed: March 2017

This is the first recording of Sir James MacMillan’s setting of the Stabat Mater, commissioned by the Genesis Foundation and first performed at the Barbican Hall in London in October 2016.

Considered purely as a recording, as a permanent record of this important work in MacMillan’s output, it is quite flawless. The singing is of the highest standard: the quality has to be heard to be believed, wondrous singing. The sound quality is equally outstanding, the balance between singers and string orchestra is superb and the acoustic could hardly be better chosen for such a deeply religious work.

Stabat Mater is preceded by eponymous Plainsong, and MacMillan is said by Harry Christophers to be amongst “a trio of truly great composers of sacred music, the other two being Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francis Poulenc.” Whether one agrees or not with this list – which omits Tallis, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Bruckner, et al (Bach was Lutheran) – there is no doubting the belief which has gone into the preparation of the public performances – and this recording – of MacMillan’s score.

The Stabat Mater is one of the cornerstones of the Catholic liturgy – and indeed belief – a 13th-century Marian hymn written in Latin and translated into English prose of haunting nobility, which manifestly poses profound challenges to anyone who undertakes to set it to music.

MacMillan’s religious beliefs – as Brahms said of Bruckner’s – “are his own affair”, and in an increasingly secular society such as ours the inner meanings of the text itself have to battle against a world both attacked from the outside by rival faiths and being in serious danger of withering from within by a growing fashionable attitude towards Christianity, in all its forms, as being irrelevant to present-day needs, typified by broad consumerism and nothing else.

Art can cause us to stop and think, to question those commonly-held beliefs (though that, of course, is not the prime function of art) and in doing so enter our consciousness and stay with us, for us to recall as and when needed, to provide us with, at the very least, the eternal verities of human transcendence.

In musical terms, MacMillan’s language is by no means difficult to comprehend – not for him the New Complexity which runs through much university music-teaching today (not the same thing as composition being ‘taught’ or ‘studied’) – so for those acquainted with Britten’s late music, or Philip Glass’s operas, or John Williams’s film music, MacMillan’s language is not a problem, and his genuine desire to communicate seriously on a large scale is wholly admirable.

In very many ways he succeeds, and much of his Stabat Mater is both moving and original in its word-setting and especially in its creation of atmosphere. But despite the seemingly quasi-onomatopoeic aspects in several passages, suitable though they be, what this work lacks lies at the heart of what I consider to be its main drawback – the absence of a contemplative aria in which, circumstantially, an individual voice deepens the work to the point where one is drawn back to it, again and again.

In the St Matthew Passion, for example, Bach was unafraid to set dramatic moments, to bring home to his audience the musical personification of the events leading to the Crucifixion, and Handel’s equally simple but breathtakingly effective use in Messiah of the falling octave in “on earth” in the chorus ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth’, among other instances, highlight the text’s dramatic aspects. But those immortal masterpieces are not – as MacMillan’s appears to be – concerned purely with word-setting as such, or the creation of atmosphere, to make a point: for Bach and Handel – as just two composers – there are arias, personal contemplations, if you will, upon the events which have inspired those pieces in the first place.

There are no such deeper contemplations in MacMillan’s Stabat Mater. Admittedly, it can be argued that the text itself is more that of observation – although the personification in the final ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’ offers a golden opportunity for any composer to bring the Stabat Mater home to the individual listener – but for MacMillan the extent of the composer’s work here, and throughout the preceding text, is to offer a succession of mood reflections, expressed with the most genuine of intentions and producing in the event a work whose effects remain largely on the surface – beautiful and often very striking – but the undoubted depths of what may lie behind the chosen text are not attempted.

 

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