Hebrides Ensemble, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Composer James MacMillan

The 21st century is proving tough for long-established festivals as they all compete to create a sense of event. It’s as if the arts have become over-internationalised, leaving summer destinations such as Edinburgh struggling to define themselves in a calendar that programme planners elsewhere have turned into a series of mini-festivals.

But when the Edinburgh Festival hosts a premiere by James MacMillan, Scotland’s most globally recognised composer, the sense of event is palpable – especially when underlined by the Presbyterian aura and generous acoustic of Greyfriars Kirk.

MacMillan has recently churned out so much music that you wonder how he found time to write Since it was the Day of Preparation ... – an 85-minute setting of the Resurrection story that picks up where his St John Passion left off. However, this avowedly Catholic composer finds the Christian Gospel endlessly inspiring, and the result is technically flawless.

Whether it is creatively inspired is open to debate. Scored for a small choral group, a bass-baritone singing the words of Christ and an ensemble of clarinet, horn, cello, harp and theorbo, the piece comprises a litany of Biblical narrative, interspersed with instrumental solos and four-part Latin liturgies. The vocal writing – mostly medievalist plainchant and off-the-shelf minimalism – is never less than pretty.

Since it was the Day of Preparation ... has many arresting moments. What lets it down is its self-conscious religiosity. It’s as if MacMillan is piggybacking on the Bible’s spiritual resonances to lend artistic credibility to a setting that leaves next-to-no room for imagination because it is so literally faithful to its source. It lacks pace too, the only difference between each section being the colour of musical paint that happened to capture MacMillan’s magpie mind. He loves the sound of his own voice – a voice that blends musical idioms borrowed from the past.

But it’s a voice with a popular following. That’s why, boosted by this exquisite performance by Brindley Sherratt, the Hebrides Ensemble and Synergy Vocals, MacMillan can be guaranteed to create a sense of event.


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