James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Sun-Dogs (2006) [21:13]
Visitatio Sepulchri (1992-93)* [45:00]
Netherlands Radio Choir; *Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic; Celso Antunes/*James MacMillan
rec * June 2008, Studio 3, Netherlands Radio Hilversum, the Netherlands; June 2009, Studio 5, Netherlands Radio Hilversum, the Netherlands
Latin texts (Visitatio Sepulchri) and English translations included
BIS SACD 1719 [67:02]

James MacMillan’s Roman Catholic faith has been a profound influence on and source of inspiration for much of his music. In particular, it’s led him to compose a good deal of music inspired by the events of Holy Week and Easter. These have included his magnificent St. John Passion (review), Seven Last Words from the Cross (review) and his earlier orchestral triptych, Triduum (1996-97).

Visitatio Sepulchri (Visit to the tomb) is roughly contemporaneous with Seven Last Words from the Cross. Originally conceived as a ‘sacred opera’ for seven soloists (SSATTB and male speaker) it is presented here in the revised version for chorus and chamber orchestra in which each of the original solo roles is allotted to a section of the choir. This is, I think, the first recording of the work in this format though I see from the Boosey & Hawkes website that there was an earlier recording of the version for solo voices, which is no longer available. The notes accompanying this CD are by Stephen Johnson and they are very useful. However, I’d recommend that listeners also take a look at the composer’s own note on the Boosey’s website, which usefully supplements Mr Johnson’s thoughts.

The work is a powerful one. The first of its three movements is purely orchestral and it depicts the Crucifixion of Christ in music that, at the start, is violent, jagged and aggressive. Eventually this gives way to what Stephen Johnson calls a “quasi-choral section” for strings. At first hearing this music may seem to offer repose after what has gone before but it’s unquiet music and it sounds to me as if it portrays exhaustion and the last death throes of the spirit.

The second section depicts the actual visit to the tomb. In the Gospels we read how some of Christ’s female followers visited the place where he had been buried very early the next morning to find the tombstone rolled away, the tomb empty and an Angel there to greet them. In MacMillan’s piece the words of these women are sung by the female singers, obviously, while the male voices depict the Angel. This music may mean less to non-believers but I found it quite revelatory as an aural imagination of the scene. Imagine, if you will, a small group of women, already traumatised by the events of the previous day, visiting a place that was strange to them – a garden, we are told, in which the tomb had been created – in the half-light of dawn. Their fear and confusion are tellingly conveyed in MacMillan’s music while the imaginative orchestral colouring conveys extremely suggestively the atmosphere of the surroundings. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. Later in the movement MacMillan sets some verses from the medieval Easter hymn, ‘Victimae Paschali laudes’.

The third movement, which follows without a break, is a setting of the Te Deum. This extended setting occupies nearly half of the duration of the entire piece - 23:32 in this performance - and it’s a remarkable conception. At the start you can hear that the choral parts have their roots in the old plainchant melody of the hymn but MacMillan has utterly transformed it. Fragments of the text and of musical phrases are hurled around, it seems, from one voice part to another and the overall effect is one of a wild tumult of praise. Meanwhile the amazingly busy orchestration adds to the ferment. This opening section of the movement is impassioned, full-on music with a consistently strong rhythmic impulse. I would imagine that it’s hugely demanding of the singers.

Around 7:00, at ‘Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem’, the plainchant melody is heard again, more richly harmonised than before, and this ushers in a calmer episode; and not before time – the listener needs the respite from the teeming invention thus far heard. Actually, it feels like more than seven minutes has elapsed, so frenetic has been the pace of the musical argument up to this point. The calmer section is quite extended but the energy levels pick up again around 14:58, at ‘et laudamus Nomen tuum in saeculum’. At 18:58, led by the trumpets, the music gathers itself for a final major-key peroration of no little splendour, in which the plainchant theme is again prominent. However, the composer has one more surprise in store. When everything seems set fair for a Big Finish the music starts to die down (at 20:00) and as the orchestra subsides almost to nothing we hear the choir whispering what I think are the last couple of lines of the hymn – even listening through headphones it’s almost impossible to make out the words, which I’m sure is intentional. After all the preceding forthright praise of God MacMillan is surely emphasising here how tiny and puny is mankind compared to the Creator. So ends an extraordinary but very impressive setting of the Te Deum. It’s the culmination of what is a powerful and moving work.

Sun-Dogs is very different. It’s for unaccompanied chorus and though quite a number of unconventional vocal effects are employed, thirteen years on from Visitatio Sepulchri we find MacMillan employing a different and, superficially, ‘easier’ and more approachable musical language. The piece is cast in five movements and the words are chiefly by the poet Michael Symmonds Roberts, who has provided texts for several other MacMillan pieces, notably his opera The Sacrifice (review), as well as the choral works Quickening (1998) (review) and The Birds of Rhiannon (2001) (review). The words – and the work itself – are somewhat ambiguous in that various ancient symbolic views of dogs are juxtaposed and contrasted. Thus, at various points in the score we find the dog portrayed as a killer and as man’s faithful companion while religious symbolism also comes into the equation. If all this sounds esoteric or contrived it’s actually far more convincing and works better than I’ve described it.

Within the five movements MacMillan’s writing is very varied and highly imaginative. There is richly harmonised homophonic writing in the first movement while the third is a virtuoso piece, quickly paced and full of urgency. Stephen Johnson suggests this movement might be suitable as a test-piece in an advanced choral competition. All I can say is that the contestant choirs would have to be extremely proficient to do justice to the music in the way that the excellent Netherlands Radio Choir achieves. The longest movement, the fourth, is the most far-reaching, both musically and philosophically. MacMillan has some of the singers intoning words by Symmonds Roberts in the foreground. These words describe dogs offering half-chewed food to their owner and the text is set to chant-like music. Meanwhile, quietly in the background other members of the choir sing Christ’s words at the Institution of the Eucharist. Put the two ideas together and you have some potent symbolism. One feature of this movement puzzles me. A couple of times we hear some of the performers whistling a jaunty little tune that has no obvious connection to the rest of the music; what does it signify? This track on the disc lasts for 7:18 and a note in the booklet refers to a “drawn-out fading away”. In fact, if you play the disc at a realistic volume level for domestic listening I think you’ll find that, even if you listen through headphones, all you can hear after 6:22 is silence. The last movement has a vivid, dramatic opening for the first of the three stanzas of Michael Symmonds Roberts’s poem. The remaining two are set to much calmer, thoughtful music – and once again that jaunty whistling reappears; it clearly has a significance that currently eludes me.

Along with the Chandos label, BIS has done sterling work to bring the music of James MacMillan to a wide audience through an enlightened series of fine recordings. This latest offering is another important addition to the catalogue. It presents two highly contrasting works by this outstanding composer, both of which are fascinating and repay careful listening.

The performances are absolutely superb. Both the playing and the singing are incisive and assured and I’m sure the composer will have been delighted with the results. I listened to this disc in CD format. The recorded sound is in the demonstration class, in every respect; in particular the percussion in Visitatio Sepulchri is reported with stunning realism. James MacMillan is one of the most important contemporary composers and admirers of his eloquent and stirring music should hasten to add this excellent CD to their collection.

John Quinn

Downloads available from http://www.eclassical.com

Two highly contrasting choral works by an outstanding contemporary composer in superb performances.