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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Magnificat (1999)
Nunc dimittis (2000)
Exsultet (1998/2000)
Màiri (1997)
The Gallant Weaver (1997)
The Birds of Rhiannon (2001)

Jonathon Scott (organ)
BBC Singers – Stephen Betteridge (chorus-master)
BBC Philharmonic – James MacMillan (conductor)
Recorded Studio Seven, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, November 2001, DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 9997 [70:30]


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In his accompanying booklet notes to this disc Stephen Johnson asserts that polystylism and eclecticism are the new accepted face of contemporary music in the early twenty first century, creating a stylistic synthesis that would have been looked upon as derisory in many circles as recently as ten to fifteen years ago.

When applied to the music of James MacMillan one can quickly ascertain that his compositional language can indeed draw its influences from a wide range of sources, yet it is the gifted few that are able to assimilate and distil these influences in the way that MacMillan succeeds in doing, the fact that he speaks with an individual yet startlingly wide-ranging voice being borne out admirably by the music on this disc.

The familiar characteristics of MacMillan’s music are here without a doubt, the rhythmically dancing brass figures at around 1’20" in the third section of The Birds of Rhiannon for instance, that for many will bring to mind the hugely successful percussion concerto Veni Veni Emmanuel, as will much of the percussion writing itself, virtuosic and sometimes violent but always with an acute ear for unusual textures and colour. Compare this with the unaccompanied choral work, The Gallant Weaver and the comparison could not be more stark, the latter an astonishingly beautiful setting of Robert Burns, at times almost folk like in its apparent simplicity but as Stephen Johnson so truthfully points out, far more difficult to sing than it sounds. The writing for the choir is masterful and the BBC Singers rise to the challenge with customary brilliance. I can say with honesty that in a "blind listening" I would have struggled to put MacMillan’s name to this piece.

The other work for unaccompanied choir on the disc, Màiri, based on an elegy by Gaelic poet Evan MacColl, is again highly contrasting, this time to the opposite extreme of The Gallant Weaver, the technical virtuosity of the writing testing but met once again, with singing of the highest rank (for vocal control just listen to the astonishing closing bars as the music ascends into the highest register of the soprano voices where it simply ceases at the top of the range).

MacMillan’s devout Catholicism is never far away in his music and in the two settings of the nativity canticles from St. Luke’s Gospel, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, separated by a year and sharing a degree of common material, the composer’s marriage of styles is perhaps most apparent, the choral writing generally straightforward and melodic but often set against an orchestral backdrop of greater chromatic freedom. In the case of the Magnificat in particular the result can be touchingly beautiful, the music largely contemplative until it is shattered by a series of huge chords three quarters of the way through, returning to peace with gentle string glissandos at the conclusion. In the same way that certain material is shared between these two works Exsultet, originally for brass quintet but re-scored for orchestral brass, timpani, percussion and organ, shares common material with the Symphony, Vigil, taking its inspiration from the Latin Easter Proclamation (Exsultet means "rejoice") and taking the listener on a journey from the darkness of the subterranean opening to a gradual climax of immense cumulative power resulting in a blaze of chordal sound on the organ.

It is Welsh legend that provided MacMillan with the starting point for The Birds of Rhiannon, what he describes as "a dramatic concerto for orchestra with a mystical coda for choir". The birds, as described in The Mabinogion, the famous collection of mediaeval Welsh tales, are angel-like creatures who appear at the death of the warrior king Bran, telling of the peace he has brought to warring factions with his own personal sacrifice. The key here is MacMillan’s use of the word dramatic, for the composer is able to unleash his entire musical armoury in a work of impressive dynamic and emotional contrast.

Throughout this diverse disc of music the integrity of MacMillan’s inspiration shines through. Directed by the composer himself (MacMillan took over from Peter Maxwell-Davies as Composer/Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in September 2000) the performances are as fine as one can imagine, captured in typically exciting, radiant and sonically wide- ranging Chandos sound. MacMillan fans will not wish to be without it but I would urge anyone with an enquiring musical mind to give it a go. MacMillan’s music continues to offer much to discover.

Christopher Thomas


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