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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) [47:22]
Christus Vincit (1994) [6:18]
Nemo te Condemnavit (2005) [5:17]
... here in hiding ... (1993) [11:40]
The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross
rec. 27-29 March 2008, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London NW5
NAXOS 8.570719 [70:37]
Experience Classicsonline

There has been a flurry of performance and recordings of Macmillan's music in this, the year of his 50th birthday. This offering from Naxos - at the usual budget price - is from the talented young Dmitri Ensemble under their composer/conductor-director Graham Ross and includes two world premiere recordings. This recording is warmly commended by the composer himself and is a sheer pleasure to listen to.

In the sound-world of this disc, there is a slight echo of the very enjoyable disc of modern choral music by Giles Swayne which I reviewed last year. This is less of a surprise when one sees that both discs were recorded in the same venue - All Hallows church in London's Gospel Oak - and produced by the same engineer, John Rutter, himself a distinguished composer of modern choral religious music.

Although many of Macmillan's works are directly related to his devout Catholic faith, Seven Last Words was first shown on BBC television during Holy Week and is perhaps one of his most frequently performed and best known works. It sets texts from all four of the Gospels to build a composite presentation of the last seven sentences uttered by Jesus. It draws musically on Macmillan's own work Tuireadh - lament, and on Scottish traditional lament music as well as making occasional reference to Bach's Passion chorales.

This powerful work could be expected to be hard to follow. Adding further accompanying works might seem brave. However, the one thematic step which enables this sequence to work is the decision to adopt the theme of resurrection. Christus Vincit is a setting of the twelfth century Worcester Acclamations. Its plainsong-like phrases are punctuated by silence.

Nemo te condemnavit, which follows, is the most recent work on the disc. It is contented, reassuring and positive and is in a capella style - points of similarity with the Swayne choral disc. Taking the theme of forgiveness as expressed in the parable of the woman caught in adultery, it is one of a series of new works for post-communion reflection.  

The final work is another motet, ... here in hiding .... It incorporates the Gregorian hymn Adoro te devote but intercuts the original Latin of St Thomas Aquinas with an English translation by the poet-monk Gerard Manley Hopkins. It has been recorded previously by the Hilliard Ensemble in a version for four solo voices. The present edition is the world premiere recording of the version for ATTB chorus a capella

Seven Last Words
has previously been recorded on Hyperion by Polyphony under Stephen Layton. It received superlative reviews and was a Recording of the Year in 2005. The Naxos disc is a budget version by a newer ensemble. The Hyperion, although more generous in its pairing, is perhaps less satisfactory in its programming. Serious enthusiasts will want both. Those who choose the cheaper Naxos recording will be getting a very enjoyable disc and one which compares very favourably with its Hyperion cousin.

Notwithstanding its inexpensive price, recording, production, singing and playing are excellent. The disc is attractively presented with informative notes by the composer, full lyrics and a cover featuring a painting on the same theme by Graham Sutherland.

The Sixteen have also paid tribute to Macmillan, bringing out with impressive speed a recording linked to their anniversary-studded Thirtieth Choral Pilgrimage. Recorded only in late February 2009, Bright Orb of Harmony, on the choir's own CORO label (COR16069) came out on 30 March 2009. It’s a disc combining music by two of the three composers whose anniversaries are featured in their tour this year: Purcell, the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of whose birth (1659) is this year, and James Macmillan who celebrates his fiftieth birthday on 16 July 2009.

James Macmillan's fiftieth year is marked by international acclaim. Scots percussionist Colin Currie performs the concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel in Finland and the St John Passion receives its German premiere in Berlin, this time with staged choreography. Further performances follow in Amsterdam with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. Closer to home for British readers, in London the Britten Sinfonia mounts the first fully-staged presentation of his concert piece Parthenogenesis at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre.

Perhaps the most impressive half century birthday tribute, has been in Manchester. There Macmillan has a long history, having studied and taught at the University of Manchester before returning to live in his native Glasgow. The Royal Northern College of Music paid early respects with a three-day festival entitled Raising Sparks: The Music of James MacMillan (28-30 April) a title also used in an earlier Macmillan retrospective at London's South Bank.

A birthday salute is also scheduled at the BBC Proms, where the main work of this disc, the Seven Last Words from the Cross is paired with Haydn's work of the same title in a performance by the BBC Singers and the Manchester Camerata on 20 July 2009. Macmillan is also one of the composers featured in a series on 100 years of British Music on Radio Three's Afternoon on Three this week (w/c 22 June 2009) (also available as audio on demand), with The World's Ransoming, The Seven Last Words, and Symphony No3 (Silence) being broadcast in this mini-series.

Julie Williams

Sections of Seven Last Words
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do
Woman, behold thy Son! ….Behold Thy Mother

Verily, I say to you, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise

Eli, Eli lama sabachtani?

I thirst

It is finished

Father into Thy hands I commend my Spirit


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