Mass, A New Song, Christus vincit, Gaudeamus in loci pace, Seinte Mari
moder milde, A Child's Prayer, Changed
Andrew Reid (organ)
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker
HYPERION CDA 67219
At a time when word has it (at least in certain quarters) that the Classical
Record business is in terminal decline, along comes an issue which, yet again,
shows this tabloid-like attitude couldn't be further from the truth. Take
the case of James MacMillan; fêted at the 1990 Proms for his The
Confession of Isobel Gowdie - which was quickly capitalised on by a
Gramophone award winning recording of the work by Koch - his music
has since remained continuously in the public ear, both in the concert hall
and, in particular, on disc. Four CDs for BMG Classics followed, including
the best-selling percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel with Evelyn
Glennie. Then there is the continuing series for BIS, already amounting to
five discs. In addition there have been many CDs featuring his music in
compilation with other composers, also two further competing versions of
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Given the seriousness of MacMillan's artistic
vision, this represents a remarkable and consistent level of support over
a mere ten years, which, perhaps, could only be compared to the recordings
of the music of Benjamin Britten, made during his lifetime - if that.
Now the estimable Hyperion enters the picture with the premiere recording
of the year 2000 composition 'Mass'. MacMillan's Christian faith informs
a great deal of his music and, with one exception, each of the works on this
disc features a form of catholic religious text. This does not, however,
imply that the music is reactionary or blind to the realities of life in
the twenty first century. The Latin Mass was rejected in favour of
the vernacular text and although MacMillan's Mass could be used for
an actual service (with additional liturgical elements) the bulk of the work
is through-composed and, as the composer puts it in the booklet notes, 'Even
though this is a work which explores the eternal mysteries and truths of
the Catholic faith, it is written through the experience of the tragedies
and uncertainties of our own age. The movements of the Mass are crafted
like a musical journey which mirrors the progression of mood, emphasis and
poetic tension in the liturgy. From the Penitential Rite
to the reflective ambiguities of the Agnus Dei, the music moves from
clarity to a sense of uneasy resolution'.
Certain well-known fingerprints of MacMillan's evolving style are evident
throughout the Mass. Frequently the organ is given free reign to embellish
and comment on the texts in its highest register and with considerable freedom
of tempo, whilst the choir sing long chordal phrases beneath. This applies
immediately in the Kyrie, which also represents MacMillan's 'ecstatic'
style of rich yet shifting harmonies. Surprisingly perhaps, the following
Gloria is less about ecstasy as it begins the process of moving towards
the final 'uneasy resolution' of the Agnus Dei. A short
Alleluia where the boys sing the words 'I am the living bread
in a chant style is followed by an extremely moving Sursum Corda. Here
begins a brilliantly conceived alternation between chant, sung either by
a bass soloist or by the basses as a whole at the very bottom of their range
(clearly influenced by Orthodox church music) and richly harmonised
and chromatic outbursts from the whole choir. The overall effect is to allow
the liturgical flow to be retain its simple dignity whilst, simultaneously,
lending real musical interest to the whole.
At the end the Agnus Dei moves into a different sound world where
doubts and fears are pictured in unexpected shifts of harmony, discords and
doubtful tonality. This is some of MacMillan's most moving music and the
final peaceful end with the boys accompanied by soft and deep rumblings from
a 32-foot organ pipe is truly memorable.
The 35 minute Mass is the 'headline' work on this CD, but the remaining items
are more than make-weights. A New Song (words from Psalm 96) takes
the simple idea of repeating each verse in an increasingly ornamented fashion.
The final glorious organ solo is, however, totally unexpected. Christus
vincit (using the medieval text of the Laudes regiae) does not
employ the 'pomp and circumstance' which the words would tend to imply, but
rather reveals MacMillan's strong Gaelic influence in the decorated line
for the solo treble - here sung miraculously well by David de Winter. The
organ solo Gaudeamus in loci pace employs a plainchant melody in the
bass and mid-range, whilst the chirpy meanderings at the top of the keyboard
give immense pleasure. It was a clever move to put these latter two pieces
side by side on the CD.
Seinte Mari moder milde - a piece I have good reason to know extremely
well - is one of MacMillan's masterpieces from the mid-1990s. Commissioned
by King's College Cambridge for the 1995 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,
its intense richness and thoughtful writing for the big Cambridge acoustic
is very well served by the Westminster forces in their own similar space.
This is not its first recording; late last year BBC Records issued an album
entitled Illuminare which featured Carols composed by no fewer than
20 living composers. The BBC Singers' version of this piece is quite different
and, frankly, not in the same league. The professional sopranos have greater
difficulty with their taxing entries than the boys from Westminster, who
are an absolute delight throughout the Hyperion CD. The ending of Seinte
Mari moder milde incorporates another of MacMillan's surprises, as the
word Infantis, sung by two trebles with irregular pauses between each
utterance, fades away into the ether. The vibrato of the ladies of the BBC
Singers is somewhat inappropriate here. There is also an unforgivably noticeable
edit on the BBC disc.
James MacMillan is good at surprises. His A Child's Prayer written
in memory of the victims of the Dunblane tragedy concentrates firmly on the
positive and the word 'Joy' is sung with immense power at the work's climax.
The final piece on this superb CD is Changed, which incorporates a secular
text - a poem by Wallace Stevens. But there is no getting away from the
Eucharistic theme that dominates all of the music here, as the text is really
another metaphor for transubstantiation.
This is another triumph for Hyperion and further establishes James MacMillan
as a unique and vital voice in British music making.