I first encountered James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words
from the Cross in
2005 when I attended a very fine performance by a local choir in Gloucester and
then, shortly afterwards, reviewed the
magnificent Hyperion recording by Polyphony and Stephen Layton. It is, I believe,
a masterpiece and it was the work that really opened my ears to MacMillan’s
eloquent and challenging music.
When I reviewed that Hyperion disc I little imagined that another recording would
come along in the foreseeable future. However, here we have one, issued to mark
MacMillan’s fiftieth birthday in 2009 and it’s marvellous to be able
to report that not only is it an excellent recording but also that, thanks to
the enterprise of Naxos, it’s available at budget price. That means that
people who don’t know the work and who might be understandably thoughtful
about investing in a full price disc can now discover it for a modest outlay.
If I may I will refer readers to my review of the Hyperion disc for a fuller
description of the work and of its genesis in a 1993 commission by BBC television
- a commission that’s all but inconceivable these days, I fear. The music
that James MacMillan produced in response to this commission is powerful - often
visceral - in its impact and, as so often with this composer, it communicates
very directly with the listener. It’s not an easy listen but, having said
that, I must emphasise that the musical language is accessible - it’s not
just the listener’s ears but, even more so, his or her emotions that are
really stretched by MacMillan. Like many other pieces in his output Seven
Last Words from the Cross is inspired and underpinned by MacMillan’s
Catholic faith. However, it seems to me that one of his great achievements as
a composer is to use his faith as a wellspring of inspiration without ever ramming
that faith down the listener’s throat. I think it helps to appreciate his
religious music if one is a believer but I’m sure that a non-believer can
just as validly appreciate the music as a work of art.
The Dmitri Ensemble is primarily a string ensemble but other performers, both
instrumental and vocal, are added as necessary according to the repertoire that’s
being performed. They specialise in performing neglected music and new compositions.
In their service to the former category they recently collaborated with Sir David
Willcocks to bring us a fine first recording of Vaughan Williams’s Folk
Songs of the Four Seasons (see review).
Though I was delighted to acquire that Vaughan Williams rarity on disc I think
they’ve performed an even greater service to collectors with this MacMillan
The performance is exceptionally fine. MacMillan makes huge demands on the string
players. Sometimes he calls for ardent playing, even for harsh tone, but many
passages are subdued, requiring the utmost sensitivity and accuracy of intonation.
Though I don’t possess perfect pitch it seems to me that these players
meet every challenge in the work and pass every test with flying colours. No
less challenged are the singers, and the small choir (7/6/6/6) deliver their
demanding parts with skill and commitment in equal measure. Graham Ross draws
everything together marvellously; it sounds as if he believes in the music absolutely
- as I’m sure is the case.
It would be invidious and quite wrong to suggest that this new recording is “better” than
the Polyphony disc - or vice versa. Each, it seems to me, is of the highest
quality in every respect. Collectors who already have the Polyphony recording
can rest content, though given the price of this new issue one could afford the
luxury of owning both versions. For a newcomer to this profound score this Naxos
disc, with its obvious price advantage, may be the place to start.
Happily for those, like me, who want both versions yet need to justify the duplication,
the couplings on both discs are different and, in both cases, very attractive.
Polyphony offer On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin (1997) for five-part
choir and organ together with MacMillan’s 2001 setting of the Te Deum.
The Dmitri Ensemble gives us three other works.
Christus Vincit is a strange piece in that it is a most unexpected response
to a powerful twelfth-century text. The words translate as “Christ conquers.
Christ is King. Christ is Lord of all. Alleluia.” One might expect a blazing,
triumphant setting, resplendent with brass and/or organ. What we actually get
is a slow-moving, unaccompanied setting for double choir. It starts very quietly
and though the textures and volume gradually expand, the work remains thoughtful
and awed in tone. MacMillan, one feels, is not so much proclaiming the glory
of Christ as being humbled before it. Perhaps it’s significant that the
piece was written for St Paul’s Cathedral. One can imagine the long vocal
lines echoing round that vast space. One wonders also if MacMillan’s response
to the words is a deliberate corrective to the grandiose baroque splendours of
Nemo te Condemnavit is a short Communion motet. In his booklet note MacMillan
says it’s one of a growing number of reflective post-Communion pieces that
he’s writing for the Catholic liturgy. Here he sets the words of Christ
addressed to the woman caught in adultery, as they appear in St. John’s
Gospel. It’s a subdued and very beautiful piece. This is its first recording
and it receives a performance of the highest quality.
... here in hiding ... is a setting that combines Latin words by St. Thomas
Aquinas and a translation of them by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Originally composed
for four solo voices and performed and recorded as such by The Hilliard Ensemble,
we hear it now in a version for ATTB chorus, which here receives its first recording.
I don’t believe I’ve heard the original version but it seems to me
that the music is very well suited to the additional richness of texture that
a small, expert group of singers can bring to it.
It only remains to report that the recorded sound is very good indeed - the producer
and engineer is none other than John Rutter - and that the composer contributes
a very good note to the booklet, which also includes full texts.
Oddly, both the Naxos and the Hyperion discs have one small point of similarity
in that both place Seven Last Words from the Cross first on the disc.
That’s rather a pity because, as I observed in my earlier review, after
the profundities of the main work, which ends so quietly, one just wants a few
moments of silence to collect ones thoughts and absorb the listening experience
one has just had. But that’s something that can be overcome with judicious
use of the remote control. What really counts is that, whichever one of these
discs you choose, you have the opportunity to listen to a superb account of one
of the most eloquent and moving works of contemporary religious music that I
I hailed the Polyphony recording of Seven Last Words from the Cross as “an
unqualified success”, adding that I recommended the disc “not just
enthusiastically but urgently.” This excellent new Naxos release fully
justifies equal enthusiasm and I’m delighted to add it to my expanding
collection of discs of music by this remarkable composer.
see also review by Julie