Classical review: Cumnock Tryst: The Sixteen, Cumnock

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As if to highlight that the first-ever four-day Cumnock Tryst Festival is a very personal venture for its founder and director James MacMillan, the inaugural concert by Harry Christopher’s wonderful vocal ensemble, The Sixteen, took place in the church with which the Cumnock-born composer and his family have a lifelong association. There was a palpable tone of pride and nostalgia in MacMillan’s introductory comments, in which he reiterated his pride in “bringing something back” to the town where he grew up.

Cumnock Tryst: The Sixteen - St John’s Church, Cumnock

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Connections aside, St John’s Church’s multi-styled sanctuary – squat pillars supporting the high ceiling void and a warm vista to the colourful domed chancel – was a perfect auditorium for a sequence of a cappella music ranging from the succulent 16th-century polyphony of English composer John Sheppard to Scottish premieres by an international trio of composers and MacMillan’s own Miserere.

In every performance, Christopher’s immaculate ensemble delivered a rich and resonant sound, gleaning from the various Sheppard motets – a thread that gave cohesion to the programme – a delicious golden consonance peppered by subtle but stinging dissonance.

The new works were all settings of the Stabat Mater, but each bore its own distinctive charm and personality.

Estonian Tõnu Kõrvits’ setting smacked of mystical and plaintive colourings, tinged with exotic, folk-like melodies and seamlessly woven structure. A little lugubrious, perhaps, but consistent in its marriage to the text, and glowingly sung.

UK composer Matthew Martin offered a striking contrast, and a work – supplemented by additional text by the Dean of Canterbury – driven by huge expressive range. With a semi-choir situated at the altar, Martin created a spatial dimension that provided a thrilling theatricality, and a language with occasional echoes of the English part-song style.

The youngest of the composers, Russian Alissa Forsova, produced a work centred on familiar references to idiomatic cadences from various points in musical history. She had the sustaining power of The Sixteen to thank for turning its continual series of gestural statements, with their tendency to evoke predictability, into the powerfully structured performance it was. Texturally, it had a solid warmth reminiscent in parts of Bruckner.

The Miserere – a classic example of MacMillan’s ability to combine reverential sanctity with theatrical animation – was a hugely moving climax to a stunning recital, all the more poignant as it ends with a reference to his famous Tryst melody. The standing ovation was inevitable.

Seen on 02.10.14