Michael McGLYNN (b.1964)
Celtic Mass [28:33] Sir James MacMILLAN (b.1959)
Brandon Hendrickson (baritone), Scott Bennett (organ)
Taylor Festival Choir and Instrumental Ensemble/Robert Taylor
rec. June 2012 and 2013, Bethany United Methodist Church, Charleston, USA DELOS DE3493 [67:37]
This is a disc of two settings of the Catholic Mass by composers from the Gaelic countries of the British Isles, performed by an American choir and recorded by an American label not particularly associated with recordings of church music. That in itself makes this a fascinating release. But the quality not only of the music but of the music-making makes this a very special release indeed.
Irish composer Michael McGlynn focuses just about exclusively on choral music, and describes his musical language as combining “Irish and medieval modality with a contemporary sensibility…fused with jazz-tinged chordal clusters and a distinctive melodic awareness influenced strongly by traditional Irish singing”. His Celtic Mass was written between 1989 and 1991 and combines the usual sections of the liturgical Mass (sung in Latin) with Gaelic verses for the Responsorial Psalm and the Alleluia Incantations. It is performed here with an instrumental accompaniment which not only features a virtuoso organ part (wonderfully played by Scott Bennett) but also a superb string sextet supplemented occasionally by a harp.
The Taylor Festival Choir has been in existence since 2001 and while this disc seems to have been recorded in two sessions a year apart (the documentation is pretty sketchy in this area) and with two different groups of singers, conductor Robert Taylor infuses both the works on this disc with a degree of intensity and visionary zeal which communicates itself most powerfully in McGlynn’s somewhat misty and often evocative writing. There are hints of Irish folk music here, passages clearly derived from traditional Irish singing, and some feeling of the Irish folk music tradition in the instrumental support. More significant is a very accessible yet distinctive musical voice, which these singers deliver with impressive conviction. The combination of Celtic mysticism and Christian fervour proves to be a heady mix, especially in this opulent and spacious recording. In one word – lovely!
James MacMillan wrote his liturgical setting of the Mass in 2000 for the choir of Westminster Cathedral. It is, to be pernickety, one of six Mass settings MacMillan has so far produced (the booklet notes suggest there are only three), and he revised it in 2013; so we could suggest there are now seven distinct MacMillan Masses. Here, we have the 2000 version, and as such it brings us head-to-head with the Hyperion recording by the work’s dedicatees recorded in 2001. MacMillan has moved a long way since this work first appeared, and I wonder now at the strong hints of Duruflé which seem some distance from MacMillan’s own very personal style. Nevertheless this is deeply affecting and moving music, once again powerfully delivered by these committed and accomplished performers.
The Mass requires not just a virtuoso organ part – which again is brilliantly brought to life by Scott Bennett on what sounds to be a very fine organ indeed, even if the recording does place it rather a long way away for it to make the kind of impact the Hyperion recording from Westminster does – but also choral singing of the very highest order. It certainly gets that here, with mature sopranos clearly challenged – and meeting the challenge head-on – by some of MacMillan’s more extraordinary writing in the “Gloria”. Most impressive of all is the spell-binding way in which they build up to the cataclysmic outpouring of waves of joy in the “Sanctus” (track 15 from around 1:15). Brandon Hendrickson, who sings the words of the celebrant, is possibly a shade too operatic to be convincing, and one would have liked something a little less dramatic from him to underscore the liturgical nature of the music and to contrast it with the often awe-inspiring drama of the choral parts.
All told, this is a very impressive performance indeed and one which makes a worthy addition to the catalogue despite the presence of the outstanding Hyperion disc. Many will be drawn to this simply because of the polish and intensity Taylor brings to his readings (and I certainly would not want to be without the McGlynn Celtic Mass), and the way his choir responds with such potent empathy for the music.