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Macmillan and his British Contemporaries: Twentieth Century Masters Volume 2
Julian ANDERSON (b.1967) O Sing Unto The Lord (1999)[6:59]
James MACMILLAN (b.1959) Christus Vincit (1994) [6:33]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) Ecce Beatam Lucem (1997) [5:58]
Ryan WIGGLESWORTH (b.1979) Libera Nos (2003)[3:42]
James MACMILLAN: On The Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin (1997) [6:49]
Jonathan DOVE: Into Thy Hands (1996) [[5:31]
Judith WEIR (b.1954) Love Bade Me Welcome (1994) [4:31]
Robin HOLLOWAY (b.1943) Since I Believe [4:39]
Francis GRIER (b.1955) A Prayer of St. Augustine [4:08]
Tarik O'REGAN (b.1978) Surrexit Christus (2002) [2:54]
Peter WISHART (1921-1984) Jesu, Dulcis Memoria (1968) [5:19]
John JOUBERT (b.1927) Whitsun Carol, Op.115b (1987) [2:29]
Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962) Salve Regina (2000) [4:51]
The Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
Robert Patterson; Nicholas Wearne (organ)
rec. Douai Abbey, Berkshire, England 13-15 July 2004. DDD
AVIE AV 2085 [64:08]
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Recently I gave a warm welcome to the first volume in what I believe is to be a three-disc series review vol 1. This second volume is even more welcome since not only does it maintain the very high artistic standards of its predecessor but also the repertoire net is cast more widely. Whereas the previous disc featured the music of Francis Poulenc and just two other twentieth century French composers here works by ten other composers are included besides compositions by James MacMillan.

There are two works by MacMillan. One of these, On The Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin, I had heard before. Indeed, only last year I reviewed its first-ever recording as part of a marvellous MacMillan disc by Stephen Layton and Polyphony review. Polyphony, of course, is an adult choir whereas New College employ boy trebles. I can say without hesitation that the New College account need fear no comparison with Polyphonyís recording. Itís very fine indeed and some listeners may prefer the additional edge that trebles bring to the music as compared with sopranos. The piece itself is quite superb. I love the way MacMillanís use of high registers both in the choral parts and in the organ accompaniment emphasises the mystery of the event. As Samuel Hogarth writes in his notes, what MacMillan presents here is a "snapshot of the Annunciation scene, strongly evoking the sense of wonderment." Well said! Hogarth rightly draws attention to the "clear texture" of the piece, which is splendidly realised here. No less fine than the singing is the playing of the crucial organ part. Whichever of the organists is playing on this track Ė this isnít specified in the documentation Ė achieves an arresting sound before the climax at the words "Allelujah, we adore". Then the joyful, dancing organ part at the very end sounds just like a bagpipe, which surely this proudly Scottish composer intended, but in the chosen registration thereís also a very apt whiff of contemporary French organ music at this point, I find.

The other MacMillan piece, Christus Vincit, is one Iíve not heard before. MacMillan never does the obvious. The short text of this piece is triumphant, even triumphalist in tone, yet at the start the music is surprisingly calm and restrained. Eventually the volume grows but overall this strikes me as a calm and serene meditation on and celebration of the power of Christ. Itís music that makes its effect through concentration and cumulative growth. Particularly noteworthy is the stratospheric solo treble part, thrillingly sung by Sasha Ockenden

The only other composer who has two pieces in the programme is Jonathan Dove. I admired both. Ecce Beatam Lucem sets a Latin text by the sixteenth-century Italian, Alessandro Striggio. As befits the subject matter the music is fittingly luminous. As for Into Thy Hands, in my listening notes Iíve written "beautiful prayerful setting" and I think that says it all.

Thereís a good deal of music on this disc to which the adjective "beautiful" might fairly be applied. Among these are Robin Hollowayís dignified setting of words by Robert Bridges, Since I Believe, and also Salve Regina by Gabriel Jackson, which provides a lovely, pacific, ending to the programme.

Julian Andersonís O Sing Unto The Lord makes a marvellous start to the recital. This piece features arresting yet accessible choral textures. I would imagine that, like most of the other pieces on this disc, itís far from easy to sing but the New College choristers donít make it sound difficult. On the contrary, they give a confident, convincing performance, which sets the tone for the whole disc. Like most of the music on the disc Francis Grierís A Prayer of St. Augustine was new to me. However, Iíve greatly admired several other choral pieces by him that Iíve heard in the past and now this one can be added to that list. After a simple-sounding opening Grier skilfully exploits a palette of rich harmonies and I thought that this splendid piece was a very eloquent response to the words by St. Augustine, which provides the text.

Thereís considerable variety in the music thatís included here and though the emphasis is on music written in the last fifteen years or so itís very good to see fine pieces by two fine composers of the previous generation, Peter Wishart and John Joubert, getting a look in. Incidentally, the Joubert piece was written for this choir, as were the works by Tarik OíRegan and Ryan Wigglesworth.

Throughout the whole recital the standard of singing is absolutely first class. Balance and tuning are impeccable and the choirís diction is extremely good. I think itís particularly impressive to find young trebles negotiating some fearsomely demanding music with such aplomb, conviction and finesse, a tribute in itself to the preparation done by Edward Higginbottom. The recorded sound is excellent, making the most of the wonderful acoustics of Douai Abbey. To round off an excellent production the notes, in English, French and German are succinct but most useful. Texts and English translations are supplied.
This is one of the finest choral discs to have come my way for some time. I rejoice to find clear evidence that so much high quality music is being written for liturgical use by composers of today. Itís an even greater cause for celebration that this music is regularly being performed at services in New College Chapel Ė and by other choirs, I fervently hope. I recommend this disc without qualification or hesitation and I look forward eagerly to the third and final volume in this enterprising mini-series.

John Quinn


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