20 October 2016, The Tablet

Maternal agony

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The thirteenth-century monk who wrote the Latin poem Stabat Mater Dolorosa about Christ’s grieving mother (and therefore all grieving mothers) is loved, it seems, as never before. Sir James MacMillan’s setting of his rhythmic rhyme, premiered last Saturday at the Barbican, is the fitting conclusion to an imaginative set of five commissioned over the past three years by the Genesis Foundation. The Sixteen, numbering nearly twice that, sang emotively the monk’s compassionate observations at the piteous scene, while the strings of the Britten Sinfonia seemed to voice the wrench of maternal agony. Conductor Harry Christophers shaped with his hands a work of bitter contemporary relevance.

MacMillan divides the 20 verses into four finely balanced movements linked by motifs and phrases. The opening cluster of high violin notes is also that which ends his own Seven Last Words, a high, bleak keening that grew out of the whisper of the Barbican hall’s air conditioning.

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