JAMES MacMillan has lavished his compositional mastery generously on his new work,Since it was the day of Preparation...premiered last night by the Hebrides Ensemble with the four singers of Synergy Vocals and bass Brindley Sherratt.

The composer has chosen a concluding section of what I assume is his favourite gospel, of St John, following through from the death of Christ and his various appearances to Mary Magdalene and the disciples.

That's MacMillan's canvas, and on to it he has poured a vast palette of his styles and virtuoso techniques to capture and portray the story, its moods, incidents, emotions and implications. His structure is huge, multi-layered and multi-faceted. There are three parts, but within these there are multiple sections, interludes and interpolations, including brilliantly-written and played cadenzas for the exotic instrumentation of cello, harp, clarinet, horn and theorbo, with lots of bells permeating the soundworld of the piece.

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And he ranges right across the vocal horizon in his vocal styles which include unaccompanied solos, duets, and quartets as well as full-blown, instrumentally-accompanied numbers in an indescribably pluralistic display that features plainchant-style, chorales, hymns and inevitable and irresistible folk-tinged melodies and harmonies that feature in all of his music.

The music ranges in mood from austere and to warm and tender, from the purity of intensity to the almost relaxed expansiveness of a music that knows precisely its purpose, its point and its trajectory. The performance was broad, blazing and stunning. In some ways it's a bitty piece, but the joins are impeccable. Whether it is actually diffuse, further experience of it will reveal.

HHHH