Classical review: James MacMillan, Seven Angels

Composer James MacMillan's Seven Angels is a 35-minute setting of the Revelations texts. Picture: Contributed

Composer James MacMillan's Seven Angels is a 35-minute setting of the Revelations texts. Picture: Contributed

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ELGAR never completed his projected biblical trilogy by following up The Apostles and The Kingdom with a final oratorio on the Last Judgement.

A century on, and in response to a major commission from Midland’s based choir Ex Cathedra, James MacMillan has taken up where Elgar left off.

His Seven Angels, a 35-minute setting of the Revelations texts where God effectively does a cataclysmic makeover on Heaven and Earth to reveal the New Jerusalem, received its premiere on Saturday.

Set for chorus and a small ensemble indicative of “biblical instruments”, theatricality lies at the heart of this blistering music, not least the sight and sound of the two trumpeters, doubling on fearsomely primitive shofars, high in the organ gallery.

But the real drama lies in MacMillan’s pungent, visceral response to the euphoric spirituality of the text: the ominous, restive pallor of the low-strung harp/cello opening; the harrowing juxtaposition of luscious choral writing against the shock-and-awe artillery of vocalised wailing, whistling and “clicking” of locusts; the spine-chilling rude awakenings of the angel trumpet blasts; but mostly the composer’s uncanny ability to mould literal and figurative complexity in genuinely simple terms.

If anything sums up the current ease with which MacMillan is reeling out significant works, this is it.

The performance, within a broader programme, by the beautifully homogenous Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore, was nothing less than exhilarating.

No future performances planned. Sounds like a golden opportunity in waiting for the Edinburgh International Festival.

Rating: * * * * *

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