James MacMillan was born in 1959. A Roman Catholic from Scotland, he has twice before composed music for the Christian Passion – according to St John and St Luke, in 2007 and 2013 respectively. This sparse and compelling work, Since It Was The Day Of Preparation, though, deals with the period following the actual Crucifixion until the Resurrection. In fact, MacMillan seems to have decided to explore this after writing the St John Passion, for it is the final section of that Gospel which is set here. And the title of the present work is the first sentence in the text from St John after Christ's death.
Rather than take a oratorical or "grand" approach to this theme, MacMillan's Since It Was The Day Of Preparation is scored for solo bass (Brindley Sherratt) as Christ with the four (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) members of Synergy Vocals, who sing in consort… almost like a chorus in Greek tragedy. Similarly, the cello, clarinet, horn, harp and theorbo of the Hebrides Ensemble whose cellist, William Conway, also directs, play for the most part as an ensemble. One is reminded of works like Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments or the "unobstructed" directness of Milhaud or Bartók in places. MacMillan's tenderness sits well with a plainness of communication that he has always prized. He really is his own person musically; and almost defies categorization.
For there is nothing rhetorical in this music. It's spiked and pointed melodically, rather than lyrical throughout. Listen to the clarinet towards the end of the interlude in Part II [tr.7], for instance. The music's intimacy and immediacy of impact derive from this closeness and unalloyed exposure to sound, color and simplicity of line, harmony and texture. The text, however, is prime. The work is largely narrative with little reflection except that which is implicit in our almost inevitable responses to the events as described. Unlike many Passions from, say, the Baroque, though, MacMillan does not draw a net of irony over the events by suggesting that they are to be accepted without loss or sadness; and so must move on at all costs. Since It Was The Day Of Preparation is gently dramatic without stopping to look at its conclusions or consequences.
It is from the delicate carving of their parts, both vocal and instrumental by these accomplished performers that the success of this work is chiefly derived. They understand how to follow the lines from St John – where every word is clear, and clearly audible. As a direct result one somehow responds both with detachment (because there is no comment by MacMillan) and with fervor because the instrumentation is so imaginative. The composer extracts a great deal from such a meager palette.
This concentration and intrusion in our lives of the lens placed steadily over the events of the period between Crucifixion and Resurrection is further sharpened by the way in which MacMillan develops tonal centers and rarely strays far from them. One is reminded of the tonality, for instance, of Britten in the Canticles.
Since It Was The Day Of Preparation is structured in three parts, each one of which contains what MacMillan calls a "solo motet", the (aforementioned) instrumental interlude. They serve to provide contrast with the intensity of the development of the (vocal) narrative. They also serve to allow (time for) reflection – since so much of the work is unadorned exposition. It would be wrong, though, to take this work as plain recitative. This is a through-composed work; just one that does not rely on magnification of its theme. MacMillian's gifts with melody and instrumentation see to that. There is next to nothing romantic or overblown about this remarkable piece.
Indeed, one is left wondering how such modest musical resources have achieved such significant impact on the listener. It's as though MacMillan captured the essence of sanctity in his conception where the apparently unassuming has a significant impact. As one listens, one is somehow made aware of the noise of loneliness. Again, as the work reaches its (paradoxically) essentially instrumental ending, one realises just how strong the match between Sherratt, Conway, Synergy Vocals and the Hebrides Ensemble and MacMillan's idiom is. For his is not always an easy idiom to isolate and then work with.
MacMillan's music is firmly tonal and recognizant of the many traditions on which a work like this inevitably draws– counterpoint is often the prominent style – as it is towards the end of The Appearance on the Shore of Tiberias [tr.12], for instance. But, although not the major tenor of Since It Was The Day Of Preparation, a quiet lyricism (surely one consonant with MacMillan's faith) is never very far away either. Indeed, as that final cello line reaches its quiet climax at the very end of the piece, one almost realises that – for a believer, at least – the entirety of the import of the Passion and Resurrection can be subsumed in the one simple statement which MacMillan has it make: its ascending line is a message of hope.
The acoustic (that of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Glasgow) suits the contrast between hot and cold, intensity and detachment, perfectly. The small amount of reverberation (in such movements as the Appearances to the Disciples [tr.10], for example) is redolent of earlier choral polyphony; but the hall's ability to pick up pace and forward movement and bring us with the orchestration serves the solemnity of the text equally well. The booklet is up to Delphian's usual high standards. As well as context, and a brief musical commentary, the full text is presented, as are short bios of the performers – though with references to more information online; and color photographs of the performers. If MacMillan is new to you, this is a good place to start to become familiar with a composer with a hugely distinctive voice and style. Delphian is to be congratulated on this important CD. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey