Seven Last Words from the Cross

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2015/16 Concert Package, SoundBite

and Birmingham International Concert Season 2015/16

Sunday 20th March, 2016 – 3pm

Town Hall

Britten Sinfonia
Britten Sinfonia Voices
Eamonn Dougan conductor

1.45pm Pre Concert conversation with Eamonn Dougan.
This conversation will be signed by a British Sign Language interpreter

Byrd Miserere mei 4’
Bach Cantata O Jesu Christ,mein’s Lebens Licht BWV 118 5’
Shostakovich arr. Barshai Chamber Symphony Op 110a 23’
James MacMillan Seven Last Words From the Cross 45’


James MacMillan may well be the finest British composer since Britten, and his music – driven by passionate personal beliefs – simply burns to communicate. His Seven Last Words are already a modern classic; here they’re the climax of a powerfully-conceived Palm Sunday sequence from some of our foremost champions of contemporary music, the Britten Sinfonia and Chorus.

The Britten Sinfonia have a reputation for fascinating, captivating programmes, and for this concert have selected a powerful musical backdrop for the start of Holy Week – alongside Bach, Byrd and MacMillan at their most heart-rending, this brilliant ensemble are including Rudolf Barshai’s orchestral arrangement of Shostakovich’s breathtaking, agonising String Quartet No. 8, dedicated to the ‘to the victims of fascism and war.’

BBC Music Magazine Editor | Oliver Condy



Review by Simon Cummings, BachTrack:

Click here for full review

…     “Having ambled thus far at the edge of the abyss, our communal plunge into it now began. Conductor and singers left the stage for Rudolf Barshai’s famous transcription for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. Reborn as a Chamber Symphony, it highlights even more emphatically the weird, troubling drama of a work written when its composer was fully intending to commit suicide. The myriad quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier works send mixed signals: a final revisiting of cherished creations, or a self-loathing act of blunt ridicule (parody, after all, being second nature to Shostakovich)? Either way, there was the profound sense of a composer in the confessional, articulated with an authentic sense of discomfort by Britten Sinfonia. In a work that offers essentially nothing resembling a respite, the players brought a lightness of delivery through the faster movements that for a time kept at bay the dread at its core. But only for a time; through a concluding pair of Largo movements, Shostakovich places his pulse into ever more quicksand, where everything – even a fugue – becomes increasingly concentrated and claustrophobic. As the music came full circle, the players managed to make returning ideas the antithesis of a recapitulation; we were back where we started, stupefied and numb, and the way they lingered upon the work’s agonized final cadence – music that almost cannot bear to end – was horribly effective and very moving indeed.

Eamonn Dougan and Britten Sinfonia Voices returned for the second half featuring a rare performance of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross. A 45-minute meditation on this subject needs to be punishing, and it is, for performers and audience alike. Even more than the Shostakovich, this is music in extremis, where thoughts and feelings are pushed beyond the limits of rationality, resulting in a complex blend of sweetness and agony. Dougan’s judgement and skill were genuinely brilliant here, drawing out the nuances in MacMillan’s shifting palette yet never allowing even the slightest hint of indulgence – even in the tricky third movement, which in the wrong hands takes on the saccharine viscosity of condensed milk. In this performance, that sweetness finally made sense as a kind of delirious ecstasy, but even this was dismissed as soon as it had spoken. Furthermore, Dougan often moved between movements with minimal pause, which not only strengthened the work’s continuity but provided valuable distance from being rendered as a kind of ‘concert liturgy’. MacMillan’s Seven Last Words are rooted in collisions, multi-layered textures that present a serious challenge in respect of clarity and diction. Of the former, it was the most transparent performance I have yet experienced, rendering the askew symmetry of the central movement (one of MacMillan’s best creations) into a lucid, lyrical ascent and decline, and making the aghast final sections heart-stoppingly vivid. Regarding the latter, Britten Sinfonia Voices’ diction was perfect: singing, whispering, even borderline hollering, every word they uttered was audible, the increasingly desperate message all too clear. Having stopped our hearts, the conclusion then broke them, hammer blows precipitating the already desiccated music’s disintegration into wisps and fragments, forgotten as soon as they were heard.”  …


Review by Geoff Brown, The Times (££)

Click here for full review (££)

…     “For the next step, Dougan, voices and most of the musicians’ chairs left the platform, leaving leader Jacqueline Shave and the strings to scorch our ears in the valedictory rage of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, arranged from his Sixth String Quartet. Furiously precise rhythms rubbed against lyrical anguish draped in black velvet; every twist in the kaleidoscope was felt in our heart and bones.

All forces then fused in MacMillan’s Seven Last Words, originally commissioned for BBC television, though its music, piercingly direct, surely makes images redundant. Dougan and his team displayed masterly control, never letting dramatic pauses weaken fervour or momentum as the composer mused in anger and tenderness on Christ’s words from the cross.

Singing without blemish; playing that leapt straight from the heart: here was a sterling performance of a work that cries out to people of any faith or none.”     …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s