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James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Three Interludes from “The Sacrifice” (2007) [14:28]
Quickening (1998) [45:37]
The Hilliard Ensemble
City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 3 March 2007 and 22 February 2008.
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5072 [60:05]
Experience Classicsonline


James MacMillan has met with a good deal of international success, and for good reason: he’s one of the rare composers who actually takes the time to write music of substance and structure, devoid of the episodic blips, bleeps and snarls that make much modern music fall somewhere between boring and unbearable. Couple this with a dramatic flair not seen since Benjamin Britten and a fine knack for choosing good texts and meaty subject matter, and you get some  winsome art indeed.

If these three interludes from MacMillan’s 2007 Opera The Sacrifice are any indication of the quality of the whole work, then we have something indeed to look forward to, and should encourage Chandos to release a recording of the complete opera. MacMillan is obviously influenced by Britten, and these interludes, although quite original, do bear the handprint of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in the way that they conjure up such a picturesque atmosphere. Colorful orchestrations and rich, pungent sonorities make this music gripping from the start. Concise and well constructed, the listener’s attention is grabbed from the get-go and held until the end. Of particular merit is the brilliant Passacaglia. It is nice to see a modern composer mastering such an ancient form while still making it his own.

The 1998 cantata Quickening is scored for very large forces, and is clearly modeled structurally on Britten’s War Requiem. The subject is childbirth, perhaps more accurately conception, and was inspired by the recent fatherhood of both composer and librettist. The texts are exceptionally well crafted, but I would caution listeners first to sit down with words in hand as the thick orchestral textures and large choral forces make the text a bit difficult to understand on first hearing – this despite the CBSO Chorus’s excellent enunciation.

MacMillan uses his available sound palette to full effect here. His use of unusual percussion instruments adds a layer of the exotic that nicely punctuates the rather mysterious and wonderful nature of the subject at hand.

It is often said that composers do not always make the best interpreters of their own music, but in this case it is safe to say that MacMillan’s ideas for execution are as solid as his ideas for composition. He leads performances that are dramatically well paced, and has chosen outstanding forces. The magnificent CBSO Youth Chorus deserves special mention for their haunting virtuosity.

Quickening is a work that may take more than a single hearing to sink in, but it is well worth the effort. MacMillan has something significant to say, and he says it eloquently. Whether this work will find a permanent place in the repertoire remains to be seen, but this performance is an introduction that bodes well for the future.

Kevin Sutton




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