Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

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 [65:37]
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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 …. through 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.

Simon Foster

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