This is an excellent disc, comprising a range
of James MacMillan's smaller choral pieces, and at its centre
the larger work "Cantos Sagrados" which gives the disc
The Elysian Singers are a relatively small choir
(26 names are listed in the booklet), but they turn this entirely
to their advantage. The performances are exquisite, characterised
by great restraint and sensitivity. The perfect blend between
parts and (virtually) perfect intonation are also impressive.
The music itself may not be to everyone's taste.
It is all very beautiful, but for some it may be too much so.
When MacMillan's choral music is collected like this it can seem
rather monotonous, one piece sounding rather like the next. The
problem is avoided as best it can be here, in performances which
bring out the individual character of each piece.
The choir's strong, pure tone is evident from
the opening work on the disc, "Divo Aloysio Sacrum",
which has never struck me as a particularly exceptional piece,
but which certainly makes a promising beginning. The next two
tracks, "The Gallant Weaver", a setting of Burns (as
is the only other secular setting on the disc, "So Deep")
and "A Child's Prayer" both demonstrate the choir's
perfect balance. The soprano soloists in the latter are very good
though not faultless. "Seinte Mari Moder Milde" poses
greater technical challenges than most of the other works, but
they are met with no problems whatsoever. One might wish for a
little more heft at the climax. Carl Jackson's organ playing is
fine; however, it is a mystery why he is not credited on either
the front of the back of the disc, but only on the last page of
the booklet. The next track, "Tremunt videntes angeli",
is the most recent work on the disc (2002) and is wonderfully
performed - a section towards the end, with the sopranos singing
in thirds over an semi-aleatoric murmuring accompaniment from
the rest of the choir, is absolutely magical.
Next comes the central piece of the disc, "Cantos
Sagrados". This work comprises three settings of poems by
the Argentinean 'Mothers of the Disappeared' combined with passages
from the Latin mass. In the first movement the choir achieves
a really big sound, despite their size. Their enunciation is excellent.
The entry of the organ in the middle of the second movement is
wonderfully ominous. In general however, the instrument sounds
very distant and it would have been nice to have it recorded closer
(this would also have made its effect in the first movement more
dramatic). The third movement, for my money, is the most moving
music MacMillan has written, and this performance is simply fantastic.
The last two pieces, "Christus Vincit"
and "So Deep", again receive very good performances,
an excellent soprano soloist in the former. The latter is the
weakest piece, so it seems a shame to finish with it, but that
is no real reason to complain.
This disc is highly recommended to anyone interested
in choral music. It is a must for MacMillan fans, and for those
who are unfamiliar with his music but would like to try it, it
will serve as a particularly accessible introduction. Full texts
and translations are included. For those who want more, it would
be worth getting hold of a similar collection on Hyperion sung
by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, which includes a number
of these same pieces as well as MacMillan's large-scale Mass.