Music programmers are alive to anniversaries and key dates, the Edinburgh International Festival marking Sir James MacMillan's 60th birthday year with a healthy representation of his music. This world premiere of his Symphony no. 5, “Le Grand Inconnu” was an unmissable highlight.

Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan

MacMillan has had a long and fruitful association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who premiered his Second Symphony twenty years ago. As the composer took to the podium, it was fascinating to look back and hear this quietly searching, restless piece in the context of his more recent works. MacMillan made it sound fresh as spring as his fluttering fingers directed the woodwind in birdlike chatter over the soft opening bell, the upper strings adding a pitter-patter of raindrops. I was struck by the sad soft modern jazz harmonies in the brass chorale that heralded the more lyrical strings pushing through the melancholy. A second movement added more energy, bass drum and lower strings setting up a rumble like the background of a busy street as ideas were floated without immediate resolution. 

 Tension built in the orchestra like a tightly coiled spring, emerging violas unsuccessfully battered down by a snare drum, the music suddenly surging to a terrifying depth with wild harp glissandi adding to the chaos. The overall sadness remained with softer contributions from bass clarinet and cor anglais before thundering unison strings hurtled downwards and a dark martial pulse with a snare drum starting afar but completely dominating brought this movement, the heart of the work, to a shattering close. A brief postlude with dancelike rhythms and cello pedal point had MacMillan pointing to various players and sections, counting on his fingers, guiding the piece through arresting harmonies to the ethereal combination of soft harp and bells.

“Le Grand Inconnu” is a French term to describe the mystery of the Holy Spirit, but MacMillan suggests that his new symphony is not a liturgical work but a piece to inspire the spiritual understanding many still seek. Set out in three elemental movements, “Ruah” (wind), “Zao” (Water) and finally “Igne vel igne” (Fire), the work is scored for orchestra, chamber choir and chorus with four solo parts, texts a mixture of Hebrew, Greek and biblical. Macmillan used the forces who commissioned his recent Stabat Mater, Harry Christophers conducting with singers and soloists from The Sixteen and the Genesis Sixteen.

Twenty years on from his Second, MacMillan’s music has become less fragmentary and more lyrical, yet retaining an astonishing sharp edge. His palette of unusual orchestral textures had me scanning the orchestra on several occasions to discover exactly which players were responsible for producing unusual sounds. The choral writing was multi-layered, dense and achingly beautiful, the Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen’s clear voices blending seamlessly with perfect diction. While composing this symphony MacMillan broke off to write a 40-part motet, Vidi Aquam, his response to Tallis’ Spem in alium and the contrapuntal embroidery is used in this work producing great washes of sound.

“Ruah” opened the work with the choir breathing in and out, joined by the woodwind and brass blowing through their instruments, the spell eventually breaking with fluttering violins, firsts divided into six parts the music climaxing on a shout of “Pneuma” from the chorus with the rasp of natural horns and trumpets. A percussionist energetically turning a wind machine added turbulence and drama, but the choral music shone through, Christophers guiding the performers perfectly.

As the harp, piano and violins created the watery “Zao”, four solo singers added a wonderful depth, Julie Cooper’s bell-clear soprano soaring in a folky melody, passed across to Kim Porter’s powerful and warm mezzo, Mark Dobell’s sweet tenor and Ben Davies bass making memorable contribution. I loved the unaccompanied 20-voice motet, full of overlapping detail ending in a choral cry of living water as the bells brought us back to the initial soundscape.

“Inge vel Igne” began quietly, the choir’s “living flame of love” full of quiet deep beauty with delicious harmonic resolutions, but the movement built to a frantic heady climax as the living flame changed death to life, players slapping their instruments and lower strings bowing below the bridge, the orchestra resolving into a quiet ending.

Open the papers and it is the elements making headlines: quality of the air we breathe, wildfires raging in the arctic, shortages of water and disappearing glaciers causing rising sea levels. MacMillan has created a spiritual symphony for today, not just for those seeking deeper meaning in the mysterious third part of the Trinity, but for everyone, shining a light on the elemental things we need for humanity to survive. The Usher Hall audience awarded him a standing ovation as he returned to the stage to take his bow, an exciting reception for a new work.