James MacMillan Stabat Mater
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FOR anyone of faith, it is surely a supreme irony that while church attendances continue to tumble, devotional music enjoys a boom as vocal ensembles like The Sixteen rediscover reams of early music, and contemporary composers from the octogenarian Arvo Part to our own Sir James MacMillan add repertoire that is as compelling as it is popular.
The Stabat Mater is a 13th century Latin poem meditating on the plight of Mary watching the death of Christ on the cross, and on the lessons of her suffering. Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Liszt and Dvorak are among the composers who have set it, and it joins a rich list of choral devotional works from MacMillan, many recorded by Harry Christophers' choir and in partnership with the associated Genesis Foundation established by philanthropist John Studzinski, which has also been crucial to MacMillan's Cumnock Tryst festival. At nearly an hour and with an accompanying score played by the Britten Sinfonia, this is a major piece and superbly performed. Insistent string figures command intense listening, and the range of choral colours – ensemble and solos, a quartet of tenors, and declamatory as well as melodic – add up to an experience both moving and profound.