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This is another triumph for Macmillan, Harry Christophers and the Sixtten. Critics can be dismissive of Macmillan and and his ability to create music that can touch ordinary music lovers, but the great masters have always been able to do this. There is no doubt that Macmillan is a completely modern composer – this symphony could only have been written in the 21st-century – while at the same time having a rare gift for melody and directness of expression when that is what the music demands. He has put all his remarkable qualities to the service of this symphony in praise of the Holy Spirit.
I can think of a few pieces of the last 10 years which have the same capacity to exult and move as this Fith symphony. Le Grand Inconnu might suggest a cantata rather than a symphony on the first few hearings but the material is more integrated than it might first appear. The performance is technically magnificent and clearly an act of great affection for everyone involved. But the star remains the symphony itself which must surely find its place in the repertoire. The other item on the desk, the Sun Danced, is a major work in its own right and Mary Bevan excels in this performance. This must be one of the discs of the year, and not just for new music.
Sir James MacMillan certainly does not write easily digestible, sweet-to-the-ear music. His musical language is modern, partially "atonal," and highly complex. It requires concentration from the listener. Yet, unlike all too many living composers, he is able to present a musical construct with each of his works that is deeply satisfying and, the more often you hear it, intellectually and emotionally understandable. Here, both pieces are simply sensational. They create multiple distinct moods, and they paint vivid pictures as we go from delicate sounds to powerful riffs. My personal view is that MacMillan's writing is only getting more interesting with each passing year. It was fun to be figuratively slapped in the face by some of his earliest works, and now it is fun to be caressed within fascinating sound worlds that are entirely unique and intriguing. If you are unfamiliar with MacMillan's work, my recommendation is to try "The Berserking" and this album as the place to start.