James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Choral Music
Jubilate Deoa (2009) [3:26]
Serenitya (2009) [5:13]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis b (1999) [21:19]
Magnificat [13:15]
Nunc dimittis [8:04]
Tremunt videntes angeli (2002) [8:47]
On Love ac (1984) [5:17]
‘… here in hiding …’ (1993) [11:52]
Give me justice (2003) [3:20]
The Lamb has come for us from the House of David (1979) [4:35]
Le tombeau de Georges Rouault, for solo organ a (2003) [14:53]
Wells Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
Jonathan Vaughan (organ)
c William de Chazel (solo treble)
a First recording; b First recording in this version
rec. 26-27 May, 23-24 June 2010, Cathedral Church of St. Andrew, Wells, Somerset, England
Full texts provided, with English translation of Latin
HYPERION CDA67867 [78:44]

Scottish-born James MacMillan is one of the best known composers in the United Kingdom today. I know MacMillan’s output principally for: The World's Ransoming; The Confession of Isobel Gowdie; The Quickening; Veni, Veni, Emmanuel a percussion concerto composed for Evelyn Glennie and the Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich. Inspired by his Roman Catholic faith sacred choral music lies at the heart of MacMillan’s output. This disc contains ten sacred choral works plus a score for solo organ. An additional attraction is that a number of the scores are first recordings.

Opening the disc is the Jubilate Deo first performed in 2009 and composed for Wells Cathedral. MacMillan dedicated it to Willie Pondexter a convicted murderer on death row in a Texas jail that the composer befriended. MacMillan was greatly affected by Pondexter’s subsequent execution by lethal injection. Sung in English the score is a setting of Psalm 100 and the lesser doxology Glory be. The organ provides a dark and eerie opening. Brisk and ebullient, the music develops from the basses to the trebles. Three passages for solo organ at 1:42; 2:15 and 3:00 preface the divided Glory be.

From 2009 MacMillan composed Serenity for the 150th anniversary celebrations at his children’s school St. Aloysius’s, a Jesuit college in Glasgow. Here MacMillan sets two inspirational texts alternating two verses of St. Thomas Aquinas’s O salutaris Hostia with two verses of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity. The first section of Serenity is the Latin antiphon O salutaris Hostia for the Feast of Corpus Christi by St. Thomas Aquinas. Serenity is a setting of the first verse of The Serenity Prayer generally attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The Serenity Prayer has gained worldwide popularity owing to its use in 12-step recovery programmes for addiction. The high voices play a dominant role throughout this lyrically memorable and mainly gentle and comforting score.

The score Magnificat and Nunc dimittis was a two-part commission from 1999. It was the BBC that commissioned the Magnificat for which MacMillan offered an orchestral accompaniment. Performed here is the version of the Magnificat for four-part choir and organ. The companion piece, a setting of the Nunc dimittis, was premièred in 2000 being a commission by Winchester Cathedral. Sung in English both settings are Canticles taken from St Luke’s Gospel. When played together, as presented here, at over twenty-one minutes in total plenty of time is allowed to explore an abundance of ideas. Creating a mood of contemplation in the Magnificat a haunting solo organ is heard until 1:53 and as the notes explain, “the choir’s simple unaccompanied, chant-like phases are interspersed by organ interludes Messiaen-like in their evocation of birdsong.” In the Nunc dimittis deep prolonged notes for basses and organ pedals commence the writing. The design of chanted phrases interspersed with the Messiaenic organ interludes continues.

A motet Tremunt videntes angeli (Angels tremble at the sight) was composed in 2002 for the dedication service of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s stained glass Millennium window at St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral Edinburgh. The setting uses fifth century Ascensiontide text from Aeterne rex altissimo (Eternal king most high). Extended drones in the basses predominate in the first verse. It is the high voices that sing the second verse with a similar drone effect. The third verse makes a powerful statement in praise of God. That verse ends in an Amen for high voices. After a short pause a refrain concludes the score with writing for high voices once again taking centre-stage.

Written as a wedding present for two friends, On Love was first performed at the Dominican Chapel of St. Albert the Great Catholic Chaplaincy in Edinburgh. From 1984 On Love is a setting in English of words from The Prophet by Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran. Head chorister and treble soloist William de Chazel sings the three verses with organ accompaniment. Imparting a rather sombre mood this is not the sort of sacred vocal score that one would normally associate with wedding festivities; especially the shadowy tone of the first verse. In response to a commission from the Hilliard Ensemble, MacMillan dedicated ‘… here in hiding … to his twins in 1993, the year of their birth. It’s a setting of the Eucharist hymn Adoro te devote (I devoutly adore you) by St. Thomas Aquinas. MacMillan incorporates the translation from Gerard Manley Hopkins. Scored for the Hilliard Ensemble, a counter-tenor, two tenors and a baritone, this is complex and diverse music. Around halfway through the score the tenor takes the foreground. The music gently fades away to conclude the score. Although a fascinating and creative score at nearly twelve minutes duration it did rather outstay its welcome.

From 2003 in the Introit for the fifth Sunday of Lent Give me justice MacMillan has set text in Latin and English from Psalm 43. The work ends with the lesser doxology Gloria Patri (Glory be). Scored for unaccompanied SATB choir a sense of the plainchant is never far way.

The Lamb has come for us from the House of David was composed in 1979 for the ordination of Allan White OP who progressed to become the Provincial of the English Dominican Province. Scored for SATB choir and organ it was first performed by Schola Sancti Alberti at the Catholic Chaplaincy at Edinburgh University. MacMillan has set words in English from the fourth century Syrian theologian/poet St. Ephraim. With The Lamb… Macmillan has created calming music that comes close to a state of serenity. With a powerful part, rich in variety, the organ plays the majority of the time. The treble soloist comes in like a breath of fresh air to memorable effect at 2:41-3:03.

Macmillan wrote Le tombeau de Georges Rouault (solo organ) in 2003 for the renowned soloist Thomas Trotter. Succeeding Sir George Thalben-Ball as Birmingham City Organist, Trotter is also organist at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey. MacMillan was inspired by the work of Parisian artist Georges Rouault and at times it felt as if we were being taken on a promenade around an art gallery. The music conveys a sense of both the sacred and to a lesser degree the secular. As this thought-provoking music progresses the weight and intensity of the writing increases. I gained an overall impression of the contrast between good and evil; happy and sad, and maybe life and death. Between 11:35 and 13:21 an uneasy calm prepares the listener for the thrilling yet tumultuous conclusion. Organist Jonathan Vaughn displays his expressive ability coupled with remarkable technical control. The overall structure of the piece is conveyed by Vaughn with unshakeable assurance.

Throughout the disc the singing feels sincere and appropriately reverential. There is a fine spring to the rhythms and by contrast, in the more meditative writing, the voices often seem to float effortlessly on air. I was struck by the clarity of focus and the impressive unity that the choir, ever splendidly alert, so ably demonstrate. In On Love I particularly enjoyed the winsome purity of voice of solo treble William de Chazel.

The sound quality is as fine as I have come to expect from this source. Helpful too are the booklet notes from Paul Spicer. There is some beautiful music by James MacMillan to be discovered on this release.

For me the appeal of these MacMillan scores wasn’t immediate. I found that repeated hearings were essential fully to uncover their many delights.

Michael Cookson

Repeated hearings were essential fully to uncover the many delights of this beautiful music.