Britten Sinfonia/Macmillan | Corn Exchange, Cambridge

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The Independent Culture

James Macmillan has been raising sparks for almost two decades. His music is the voice of protest ( Búsqueda), of grieving ( Tuireadh), of both ( The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie); of graphic brutality ( Inés de Castro) and its resolution ( Sowetan Spring); of hope abandoned and restored ( Triduum).

James Macmillan has been raising sparks for almost two decades. His music is the voice of protest ( Búsqueda), of grieving ( Tuireadh), of both ( The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie); of graphic brutality ( Inés de Castro) and its resolution ( Sowetan Spring); of hope abandoned and restored ( Triduum).

Some of MacMillan - Quickening, conceived for the Proms, the overtly rhetorical The Berserking, or the ubiquitous Percussion Concerto - makes an awful lot of noise. The opposite, one might think, of the plainchant which he so deftly manoeuvres, at best, into strong utterances and beguiling sounds - in his first symphony, Vigil, for instance. His message often seems effective in inverse proportion to its loudness. MacMillan ranting, tom-toms on overdrive, can wax tiresome. MacMillan being pi can be a turn-off, yet his ardent, consistent Catholic belief, and his eloquence - especially musically - in its defence are refreshing.

Raising Sparks is a MacMillan masterpiece. The first of his collaborations with the gifted Lancastrian-born poet Michael Symmons Roberts, the work is a polished gem, both in its beautifully articulate text setting and in the way the composer extracts from a smallish ensemble sounds as diverse as a Britten chamber opera.

In Jean Rigby's superb singing of it, the unaccompanied opening - shades of Maxwell Davies's Blind Mary - is as dark as Mussorgsky, as awesome as Akhmatova. MacMillan makes Roberts' words flow as naturally as psalm-pointing. One moment he is as desolate as Rilke ("came a single lightning bolt"), the next as subtle as Sappho or a Tang dynasty poem ("Under my shell was a smithereen of sun/ hidden in snow among wild yellow olives"). We may puzzle at the meniscus and manna ash, the sheviras and sharp-in-softs of Roberts' ripe but elusive mantra, but the effect is hypnotising.

MacMillan entices with his ensemble - the piano-led interlude heralding Part Three, the flitting pizzicato, harp whispers, pointilliste woodwind and burst of dawn chorus that ensues, or the ethereal solo violin harmonics and muttering fishbowl of sounds in the finale.

And there's more brilliantly imaginative writing in his new work, Parthenogenesis, given its premiere in Tuesday's concert at the Corn Exchange with the composer again conducting the Britten Sinfonia.

The occasion itself was a bit hit- and-miss. Half-cock visuals don't help (a rather weak semi-, or rather non-, staging, and a screen ill-placed for the antiphonally seated venue - it needed four smaller ones - showing a blown-up bust view of the singers: so what?). The poem is very good indeed; but even it could have used some artful trimming - even if Housman would not have approved.

Vocally, the performance was superlative. The baritone Chris Purves, though thin on histrionics, goes from strength to strength; Anastasia Hiller spoke the Child vividly; Lisa Milne was a top-notch Mater Dolorosa. MacMillan is a master of knotting two thematic currents, but Parthenogenesis sounded - as it should, given its fascinating subject matter (a virgin birth in wartime Hanover) - almost monothematic, much stemming from a variously manipulated rising fourth. Inspired instrumentation, laudable playing throughout.

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