At one extreme of musical preparation, early music specialists rely on research to ensure authentic performance of music by composers long dead. At the other, composers writing today might well be acquainted with the performers and consult them on the technical possibility of some passages and attend rehearsals. This is likely to have been the case for James MacMillan's Since it was the Day of Preparation... whose world première took place in Edinburgh's historic Greyfriars Kirk.

James MacMillan  ©  Philip Gatward
James MacMillan
© Philip Gatward

Commissioned by The Hebrides Ensemble, Edinburgh International Festival, Soli Deo Gloria and Kings Place, this sacred work is scored for forces described in the composer's own programme note as 'a small vocal group, a baritone (who sings the words of Christ) and an ensemble of clarinet, horn, cello, harp and theorbo'. Seated near the back, from where the performers emerged, I was immediately struck by the unusual instrumental combination processing along the packed pews. Some hugely skillful writing was going to be necessary to avoid issues of balance. I needn't have worried in that regard. The writing was wonderfully clear, very dramatic and, in many places, quite beautiful.

The text picks up where MacMillan's own 2007 St John Passion leaves off, recounting the Resurrection, Christ's appearance amongst loved ones and the anointing of Peter. Four additional Latin liturgical texts appear in parallel with the English verses. As a fan of Ives, I was very taken with this idea and its heightened lexical and musical results.

Although described as a 'vocal group' the four individual members of Synergy Vocals featured in many extended and unaccompanied solo passages. Although I would describe the music as tonal, the singers were required, often in the interest of word painting, to reach into the far corners of tonality. This produced some very exciting and emotive listening. In many such forays, their final note was required to match the re-entering instrumentalists. The pitch was spot on every time. The vocal ensemble writing was, in the main, much more settled and, on several occasions, heavenly. Brindley Sherratt, in his delivery of Christ's words, was sonorousness personified.

The tripartite form of the work was highlighted by the instrumental sections. Each of the three main sections ended with a quintet. These moments contained some of the most interesting ensemble writing I have heard. The subsections were separated by solo instrumental 'motets' which ranged from introspective theorbo and harp solos to more boisterous ones by horn and clarinet. Will Conway's cello solo was gripping. The fantastic acoustic of this kirk aids music and disruption in equal measure; footfalls, along with dropped water bottles and umbrellas made their presence felt. Thus it was unfortunate that a number of people left before the end of the work which overran its estimated length significantly. One lovely and surprising instrumental detail was the inclusion of pitched hand bells and church bells. In the quieter moments these produced the audio effect of a diaphanous veil through which melodies and harmonies emerged.

In a promotional video for the work MacMillan indicated that, while the story can be embraced on purely human terms, he would be delighted were any present inclined to the divine. While I can't say this happened, I became aware of how the reflective treatment of the text afforded time to note some resonant symmetries in the verse. For example, before the ordination of Peter, Christ asks him three times, 'do you love me?' It was almost as though each one cancelled a denial from the passion story.

I found this performance completely engaging and, were it not for the mezzo-forte exodus of the chronologically challenged, my attention would have been captured throughout. In fact, I would love to have heard the piece again upon returning home. The inclination of habitual hands to reach for YouTube or Spotify brings home the truly special nature of a world première.

Hebrides Ensemble and Synergy VocalsAlan Coady reviews the Hebrides Ensemble and Synergy Vocals' World Première of James MacMillan's 'Since it was the day of Preparation...'5