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James MacMillan: Quickening and Symphony No.2 reviews

(October 1999)

James MacMillan’s Quickening, co-commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Philadelphia Orchestra, was given its premiere in September by The Hilliard Ensemble, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir and conductor Andrew Davis, providing one of the most dramatic and poetically engaged commissions of the 1999 Proms season. The texts by Michael Symmons Roberts explore birth, in both its physical and spiritual sense, with passages alternating between the born and the unborn, divided in MacMillan’s setting between the main chorus and the combined voices of The Hilliard Ensemble and the boys’ choir.

"It is a work of considerable complexity in subject, tone and structure… 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 to thrilling effect… The last movement, Living Water, draws the strands together of this grand statement with conviction. From the murmuring of temple bowls and quiet keening, through improvising solo violins and violas, at its start, to a brilliant dancing evocation of the Pentecost, and the final return of the work’s opening material, now magically transmuted, MacMillan builds a sure climax of inspired passion." The Independent

"…its thrust and momentum made a forceful impact… Two outer movements, joyous and celebratory, frame an inner pair, dark and menacing with belching low brass, screaming trumpets, whip-crack percussion and martial snare drums… MacMillan’s output is prodigious, his skill at handling large forces dazzling…" The Observer

"MacMillan exploits the dislocated treble timbre with positively Brittenish subtlety in convincing you that this is the very voice of unselfconscious pathos. The bell-like sweetness and immaculate precision of the Hilliards here, as throughout, was arresting: MacMillan writes a skilful, archaic counterpoint for them, with only the lightest accompaniment… the final climax of this virtual oratorio is a rampage of choral-orchestral joy…" Sunday Times

"For me, MacMillan is simply the most thrilling voice on the classical-music block."
The Times (on Quickening)

On 2 December MacMillan conducted the premiere of his Symphony No.2 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Ayr, close to his place of birth and also that of the writer Andrew O’Hagan, to whom the work is dedicated. Unlike his first symphony, which formed the final epic panel of the Triduum triptych, the new work is smaller in dimensions and scored for chamber orchestra. The work is the fifth MacMillan score to be commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – several of these works are collected together on an acclaimed new recording (BIS 1019).

"This is a brilliantly written chamber-orchestral score… there is clearly more to MacMillan’s Second than a coherent, thematically integrated three-movement construction. The reference near the end of the second movement to the destructive side-drum rhythm of Nielsen’s Fifth and the allusions near the end to the more fruitful harmonies of Wagner’s Tristan suggest that there is some kind of inner conflict, in which the latter prevails. And behind it all, as with the Piano Sonata on which it is based, there is the harsh Scottish winter landscape." The Times

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