Arts: Classical: MacMillan's thriller

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CYNICS WILL have interpreted James MacMillan's recent, much reported accusation that Scotland is like "Northern Ireland without the guns and bullets" as just the latest in a series of promotional ploys in the astonishing career of this left-wing Scottish Catholic and former scourge of modernism. Yet MacMillan has managed to develop and mature without losing the knack of hitting us in the solar plexus that got him attention in the first place.

Quickening, commissioned by the BBC and the Philadelphia Orchestra, is an almost fifty-minute setting of four allegorical meditations on reverence for life by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts. The 50-minute piece is inspired by metaphysical poets such as John Donne and by a visit to Ypres. Promised as something brighter than the composer's notably dark recent works, his new score's first and final movements do encompass redemptive joy, in which MacMillan deploys his extensive forces - a large chorus, an all- male vocal quartet (here the Hilliard Ensemble), a choir of boy trebles with chamber organ and full symphony orchestra with the composer's familiar battery of wildly assorted percussion - to thrilling effect.

It is a work of considerable complexity in subject, tone and structure. First stirrings in the womb are depicted in the opening, 15-minute "Incarnadine", in which the chorus marvels at the wonder of birth in a musical language whose triads and unisons would happily find a place in Mahler or Elgar. But MacMillan has provided much more than a mere pastiche got up to make Quickening available to amateur choirs. An orchestral introduction of shifting moods has already led to the chorus's own invocation of Babel, via the babble of Aramaic-derived incantations; here the steel drums that are a recurring feature of the work add a telling commentary. And even the eventual arrival of the plangent sounds of the male quartet and boys' voices brings only a qualified ardour.

The middle movements are weaker - "Midwife" suffering from too much medieval- mannered repetition in the music for the Hilliards while "Poppies" borrows too openly, in musical as well as symbolic terms, from Britten's War Requiem. But the last, "Living Water", draws the strands together of this grand statement with conviction. From the murmuring of temple bowls and quietly keening, through improvising solo violins and violas, at its start, to a brilliant dancing evocation of Pentecost, and the final return of the work's opening material, now magically transmuted, MacMillan builds a sure climax of inspired passion. Sir Andrew Davis conducted a commendably precise, and similarly inspired, first account of Quickening, with sterling contributions from the BBC Symphony Chorus and Westminster Cathedral Choristers, as well as the Hilliard Ensemble, and the BBC SO.

If not as rapturously received as MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, veni, Emmanuel at their Proms premieres, the work was still warmly welcomed.