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James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Tu es Petrus (2010) [4:11]
Plainchant - Dignus est Agnus [4:05]
Tenebrae Responsories (2006) [20:44]
Summae Trinitati (2009) [4:54]
Benedictus Deus (2009) [5:28]
Ave maris stella (2011) [4:27]
Tota pulchra es (2010) [4:32]
After Virtue (2006) [4:59]
Serenity (2009 [4:47]
The Edinburgh Te Deum (1978) [9:17]
Ecce sacerdos magnus (2011) [3:28]
Processional on Tu es Petrus (2010) [2:03]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/London Brass/Martin Baker
Peter Stevens (organ)
rec. 12-13 March and 9-11 July 2012, Westminster Cathedral. DDD
Texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67970 [72:58]

This is the second disc of music by James MacMillan that Martin Baker and his Westminster Cathedral Choir have made for Hyperion. Their previous disc was made as long ago as 2000 and led Simon Foster, at the end of his review, to describe the composer as “a unique and vital voice in British music making.” I couldn’t agree more and the many discs of MacMillan that I’ve heard since then have simply reinforced that view.
This new programme gets off to a stunning start with the hugely imposing Tu es Petrus. This was written for the visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Westminster Cathedral in 2010 during his Papal Visit to the British Isles. To say that the piece makes a considerable impact, recorded in the vast building for which it was written, would be an understatement. MacMillan’s writing features potent deep organ sonorities, majestic writing for the brass and the choir delivers the vocal parts with thrilling attack. Right at the end of the disc we hear a shortened instrumental version of the same music which was played during the Gospel procession at the same Mass. There are other ceremonial pieces on the programme. One is Ecce sacerdos magnus, written for the consecration service of the Bishop of Aberdeen in 2011. This is much simpler in design: men’s voices sing a unison melody accompanied by organ. The writing is fairly restrained and simple but interest is added by the inclusion of parts for two shining trumpets. Summae Trinitati, written for the consecration of Archbishop Nichols of Westminster is more ceremonial with its brass fanfares, though it’s not on the same scale as Tu es Petrus; it includes a more gentle, reflective central section.
Also composed for the installation of Archbishop Nichols is Benedictus Deus. This is a cappella but, like its companion piece, it includes a good deal of arresting writing, even when the music is quiet. The vocal lines contain quite an amount of the ‘Gaelic’ ornamentation that is so often heard in MacMillan’s vocal music. Ave maris stella is a lovely piece, written for Truro Cathedral. Throughout the music moves in block chords yet within that discipline MacMillan fashions a great deal of variety. The piece begins quietly but contains some stronger episodes. The soaring treble line that adorns the lovely Amens makes for a marvellous conclusion.
Tota pulchra es is a real surprise packet. In his good notes Paul Spicer reminds us of the serene settings to which we’re used by composers such as Duruflé and Bruckner. MacMillan’s response to the text is a world away from these gentle, prayerful settings. He has written an unbridled, dancing and joyful setting. The extrovert piece features a spectacular independent organ part, which sounds magnificent on the Westminster Cathedral organ. The music has great energy and makes for a fine contrast with Ave maris stella. This is a fabulous, celebratory piece and it’s superbly performed here.
The only piece about which I’m unsure is After Virtue and that’s because I don’t yet understand it. It’s really a secular piece and, most unusually, MacMillan has chosen to set not just a passage of prose but the last page of a book of the same name by the contemporary author, Alisdair MacIntyre, which the composer describes as “a landmark tome in moral philosophy and a profound criticism of modern moral discourse.” The words are not an easy read and I’m not sure that comprehension is aided by the fact that we see the words out of their context. This is a work with which I need to engage more, I think.
It will be noted that while almost all the music on this disc was written in the last few years The Edinburgh Te Deum was written as long ago as 1978. This is a product of MacMillan’s undergraduate days at Edinburgh University but it was never performed at the time - perhaps because the music was beyond the capabilities of a student choir? - and it had to wait for its first performance until November 2011 when it was sung in Westminster Cathedral. Even at the age of 21 MacMillan was writing assured, arresting vocal music and the important organ part is stretching too. I’m amazed that this often powerful setting lay hidden from public gaze for so long.
The most extended work on the disc is the set of three Tenebrae Responsories. I first encountered these remarkable pieces in the excellent recording by the ensemble that commissioned them, Cappella Nova. It was Gary Higginson’s review that alerted me to the availability of the disc and I lost no time in adding it to my collection. I dissent from Gary’s view that there are times in this work when MacMillan appears to be going through the motions and, with no disrespect to Cappella Nova, I wonder if he might revise his view were he to hear this searing Westminster performance. I would not for one minute suggest that the new recording is ‘better’ than the Cappella Nova for both have a great deal to commend them but they are very different. In the first place the Westminster choir is significantly larger than Cappella Nova which, if I read the booklet correctly, numbered eight singers for this work. A key difference is that Cappella Nova comprised adult singers - all professionals, I think - including female sopranos whereas the Westminster choir has boy trebles on the top line. Finally, Linn’s recording of Cappella Nova - which is very good indeed - was made in what I suspect was a smaller acoustic at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and the singers are rather closer to the microphones. The Westminster choir is somewhat further away from the microphones and they’re singing in the vast space of the cathedral. The result is a more resonant recording and the Westminster choir, its trebles in particular, has a cutting edge to the sound which offers a different perspective on the music. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the third Responsory where the trebles’ repeated cries of ‘Jesum’ are almost strident - and I mean that as a genuine compliment; the sound really suits the music. Earlier on, at the very start of the work I think that a combination of the recording and the sound of the choir means that the Westminster singers impart more of a sense of sepulchral gloom to MacMillan’s music. At the very end the Westminster Head Chorister, Alexander Hopkins, delivers his taxing solo with tremendous assurance; he has a fine treble voice and, evidently, excellent musical instincts. So, for me, this new recording has the edge though still find a great deal to admire in the Linn recording. Anyone who responds as I do to the searing intensity of MacMillan’s magnificently eloquent Seven Last Words from the Cross (review) will find these Tenebrae Responsories an equally disturbing and moving musical experience.
This is a splendid disc. The music, as I hope I’ve indicated, is compelling and full of interest. The performances by Martin Baker and his extremely fine choir strike me as well-nigh definitive. The contributions by London Brass and by Peter Stevens at the cathedral’s mighty organ add significantly to the experience. The Hyperion recording team of producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt have produced, as they so often do, an excellent recording which reveals lots of detail yet conveys the ambience of the cathedral’s large and no doubt tricky acoustic. This is a disc that shows yet again that James MacMillan is one of the most articulate and compelling of contemporary composers.
John Quinn