Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
The easy review is to invite you to choose your own superlatives but, to get you started, mine is "magnificent". We can expand this to cover both the composition by Scotland's greatest living composer, Sir James MacMillan (born 1959), and also the performance or - to be inclusive - performances as both the vocal work by The Sixteen and the instrumental contribution by the Britten Sinfonia are outstanding. Some background: the 'Stabat Mater' is one of the most moving poems in the Christian liturgy as it views the horror of the crucifixion through the eyes of Mary, the "sorrowing mother". Sir James is a committed Roman Catholic with a belief that "beauty is at the heart of our Christian faith." Here, sponsored by the Genesis Foundation, he adds his distinctive approach to the many who have gone before. Indeed Harry Christophers, founder and conductor of The Sixteen, believes that Sir James "ranks amongst a trio of truly great composers of sacred music, the other two being Tomas Luis de Victoria and Francis Poulenc." Now there is a proposition that demands discussion but only you, dear listener, can decide. Elsewhere in his booklet notes Christophers points out that there have been only two "substantial" settings of the 'Stabat Mater' in the 20th century, those of Karol Szymanowski in 1928 and Francis Poulenc in 1951. If that is the case - and I think it probably is - then we are ready for another great 'Stabat Mater'. Has Sir James provided it? Absolutely. We open with a Plainsong version, almost as an overture, before launching into an hour of the most gloriously moving music you are likely to hear in a long time. The vocal parts mesh perfectly and the Strings of the Britten Sinfonia add so much that even the hardest heart must be moved. Only a great choir could attempt such a monumental work and The Sixteen are in truly great voice. Personally I like my choral music a cappella and while I would be very interested to hear this 'Stabat Mater' in a vocal-only mix I think this would be like eating a cake without the icing. I am not a prophet but I am confident in predicting that this 'Stabat Mater' will be remembered as one of the great compositions of the 21st century and I think we will have to wait a long time before we hear a better performance by a choir and string section in such perfect harmony.
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