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’

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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

 

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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.”  …

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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.”     …

 

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Ex Cathedra: New Jerusalem

Parry, MacMillan, Panufnik

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15 Concert Package, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 Concert Package, SoundBite, Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 and Vocal Music

Saturday 31st January

Town Hall

Ex Cathedra Choir and Ensemble
Jeffrey Skidmore conductor

Parry Jerusalem 10’
Roxanna Panufnik Since we Parted (world premiere) 8’
Parry Songs of Farewell 31’
James MacMillan Seven Angels (world premiere) 40’

Nostalgia has always been a potent force in British music but the emotions it provokes can look forward as well as back.

In this inspired programme, James MacMillan takes up where Elgar left off with a superb new choral work based on The Last Judgment, while a new work by Roxanna Panufnik, two much-loved favourites by Parry, evoke a century of great music.

Ex Cathedra is a Town Hall Associate Artist. http://www.thsh.co.uk

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “Between the two Parry offerings came the first of the evening’s premieres, Roxanna Panufnik’s Since We Parted, a wonderfully warm work of immense emotional sincerity interweaving two deeply-felt poems of lovers’ separations.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-Victorian eponymous poem fused perfectly with Kathleen Coates’ A Year and a Day, written on the brink of the First World War, and Panufnik’s well-layered choral textures combined with adroit imagery from a tiny instrumental group to create a heart-stopping 10 minutes.

Four times its length was the evening’s other premiere, James MacMillan’s Seven Angels, bringing to life the Book of Revelations’ Last Judgment and picking up a century later on Elgar’s reluctance so to do in his own New Testament trilogy.

Sharing with Elgar a desire for performance authenticity, MacMillan makes extensive use of two shofars (temple fanfaring instruments) brilliantly alternating with natural trumpets at the lips of Mark Bennett and Simon Munday, high in the organ-loft.

There are also virtuoso parts for solo cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Lucy Wakeford) and percussion (Sarah Stuart).

And, of course, the chorus, from which soloists emerge in Ex Cathedra’s traditional manner. MacMillan’s vocal scoring shares the often improvisatory nature of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, including swooping exhalations, whistling, rapid teeth-palate alternations, humming and the like, all with the effect of setting his more conventional, fully-harmonised choral writing into glorious prominence.

As Seven Angels progressed, naturally structured upon each of the seven angel’s fanfaring, towards its visionary conclusion, we arrived at a final F minor chord, and the sound was genuinely ecstatic.

I doubt this performance could ever be bettered. The stunned audience silence at the end could have gone on forever.”

*****

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

Click here for full review

…     “Roxanna Panufnik’s Since we Parted was commissioned by Ex Cathedra with the support of Jane Arthur. Jeffrey Skidmore had asked that the piece should remember the Great War and, if possible, should set words by or about women. Miss Panufnik combines lines by two poets. A verse by Robert Bulmer-Lytton (1831-1891), from which the work’s title derives, acts as a kind of refrain for the full choir and is heard on several occasions. In between the refrains come lines by Kathleen Coates (1890-1958) from a poem entitled ‘A Year and a Day’. The piece is scored for choir and a small ensemble of harp, piano, cello and a pair of trumpets, the latter being used with great restraint as far as dynamics are concerned. It plays for about ten minutes.

The refrain is wistful and quite gentle. I may be mistaken but I had the impression that the music was subtly varied at each re-appearance. The composer said that in this music she tried “to create a sense of yearning – with harmonies that lean into each other and suspensions that only partly resolve.” I’d say she succeeded. The Coates lines are set in two separate passages. The first is for female voices and here the textures were graceful and the music warm. The men have the second Coates passage and their music is more robust. The performance seemed, at a first hearing, to be expert and the composer, who was present, was clearly delighted.     […]

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MacMillan chose as his text lengthy passages from the Book of Revelation in which St John describes that part of his vision when seven angels appear in succession, each to blow a dread fanfare to usher in further apocalyptic events. The angels were represented by two trumpeters, here placed behind and above the choir, next to the organ console. These trumpeters contributed a series of arresting fanfares, using not only trumpets but also natural trumpets and shofars, the primitive ram’s horn trumpets of Old Testament times, one of which Elgar deployed tellingly in The Apostles. In addition to the trumpeters the small accompanying ensemble comprised harp, cello and a battery of percussion, played indefatigably by one percussionist. It should be said straightaway that one of MacMillan’s many achievements in this score is to conjure a tremendous variety of arresting colours from just these five instrumentalists. This is just one way in which the score is highly imaginative.

Just as impressive is his writing for the choir. They have many passages of homophonic or polyphonic writing. In addition various other vocal techniques are employed, including Sprechstimme, glissandi, humming, shouting and whistling. The whistling occurs just before the appearance of the seventh angel and I suspect it’s intended to convey the sound of a great wind; if so, it works brilliantly. Indeed, all the various non-singing techniques made their mark and were relevant to the moment in the text at which they occurred; in other words, these techniques were not employed just for effect.

The words are intensely dramatic and MacMillan’s vast experience as a composer both of religious music and of operas equipped him extremely well to surmount the challenges of the text. Among many passages that caught my ear was a section, just before the appearance of the seventh angel, when the cello and tubular bells initiate a fast dance, the rhythms of which are excitingly irregular. This dance is sustained when the choir enters and it’s extremely effective. Effective too were the four passages for solo voices – bass, tenor, alto and soprano successively – which illustrate the appearances of the first four angels. Most imposing of all, however, was the music at the point to which the whole work had surely been aimed: the words beginning “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. Here the whole ensemble was united in a luminous outburst which gradually unwound to be followed by several more similar explosions of fervour. The work finished with the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” The long silence that followed the conclusion of Seven Angels bore testimony to the power and eloquence of the piece we had just heard for the first time.

I confess that for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure what I would make of Seven Angels but this is a work that draws the listener in and which compels attention. The music is astonishingly inventive and imaginative, though I do wonder if the trumpet fanfares are not perhaps a little overdone. The performance by Ex Cathedra and the small instrumental ensemble was beyond praise. The music is clearly complex and extremely demanding yet not only was it put across with great assurance but also with the conviction that only thorough preparation and highly skilled execution can produce. The composer, who was enthusiastically applauded, looked delighted by the performance and I’m not surprised.

This was an unforgettable concert of memorable music superbly performed. I’m particularly keen to hear Seven Angels again for it is a profound and dramatic work that demands detailed listening and reflection; one hearing simply isn’t enough.”