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James MacMillan: The Sun Danced; Symphony No. 5

The Sixteen; Genesis Sixteen; Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers, et al (CORO)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

James MacMillan
The Sun Danced*; Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’
*Mary Bevan, Kim Porter, Mark Dobell, Julie Cooper, Ben Davies (voices); The Sixteen; Genesis Sixteen; Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers
CORO COR16179   78:10 mins


Recorded live (free of audience sound) at the Barbican in London last October, after its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival, James MacMillan’s latest symphony, the choral Symphony No. 5, is here paired with his 2016 work, The Sun Danced. Named Le Grand Inconnu after a French phrase for the Holy Spirit, the Symphony ranges from the literal and earthy – the sound of breath exhaled from the body opens the first movement – to intensely orchestrated expressions of religiosity.

Split into three movements exploring facets of the Holy Spirit, the work is divided chorally at times into up to 20 parts, sung immaculately, with both meditative ecstasy and intense power, by The Sixteen and their emerging counterparts, Genesis Sixteen. The first movement ‘Ruah’ (Hebrew for breath or wind), opens with expansive, intimate breathing and closes in a huge brass climax, before ‘Zao’’s fluid, meditative harps and flutes pick up the thread, the movement of water. ‘Igne del Igne’ finishes the work in fire. The Sixteen are the consummate echo chamber for this intense mix of praise, awe and wonderment.

Preceding it is MacMillan’s The Sun Danced. Commissioned by the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal to celebrate the Centennial of the Miracle of the Sun on 13 October 1917, this choral work is by turns quiet, ecstatic, and filled with divine urgency. Soprano Mary Bevan is the impassioned soloist, narrative and declamatory, the whole filled with MacMillan’s mastery of the pull between the numinous and a very visceral experience of the divine. This is the orchestration of belief, immaculately played by the Britten Sinfonia and The Sixteen under Harry Christophers.


Sarah Urwin Jones