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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
One Equal Music - Psalms, Poems and Folksongs
Alexandra Caldon (violin), The Elysian Singers / Sam Laughton
rec. 2017, University College School, Hampstead, London

Having greatly enjoyed The Elysian Singers’ first venture into the music of James MacMillan for Signum back in 2004, Cantos Sagrados (SIGCD507), which Simon Smith reviewed in these pages, I was greatly looking forward to this disc, and I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, on this evidence, fifteen years is much too long to wait for a follow-up disc.

It is divided into four sections: along with the three categories in the disc’s subtitle, Psalms, Poems and Folksongs, we also have Prayers. The first Psalm, “Blow the Trumpet in the New Moon” (Ps. 81), acts as a kind of herald to the disc, but for me it is the final two of the four psalm settings that stand out. The first of these is Psalm 51, Miserere. There have been a great many fine settings of this call for mercy over the years, and this version, with its tender plea, adds to this list. Its rising inflection is quite lovely, while the more animated second section is more eager in its call. This is followed by the first of the two settings to include the very fine violin playing of Alexandra Caldon, which combines Psalms 103 and 79. The choirs calls of ‘Domine’ throughout the text are quite wonderful, and at times the solo violin soars above like a lark.

The first of the three settings of poems gives the disc its title and is quite lovely, a highlight being the line, “no noise nor silence, but one equal music”. This is followed by a short motet which was composed for the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003. It is a setting of George Herbert’s “To my successor”. For me, it is the third of the poems which stands out: it is a setting of the Scottish First World War poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley, who lost his life on the front line aged just twenty; the spare setting suits the words and character of the poem perfectly. 

MacMillan is not new to setting folk songs, having had some success with them in the past. Here we have two further settings: the first is of the Scottish folk poem, “Lassie Wad Ye Loe Me”, and although it is well known, here he chooses to set the text to a new tune of his own, and the result is tender and lilting; the second is of the Jacobite text “Domus infelix est”, its mention of the “Lord” being a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie. This beautiful choral setting is once again set against the solo violin of Alexandra Caldon, who is called to play against the meter of the vocal line, making at times a wonderful dissonance.

The final two settings come under the heading Prayers, although this is missing from the subtitle on the front cover of the disc. They are the Latin prayers “Ave maris stella” and “Cecilia Virgo” and are equally fine, meditative settings; I particularly like the way that the sopranos soar above the rest in the “Ave maris”, and the double choir effects are wonderful in “Cecilia Virgo”.

Throughout this recording, The Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton are excellent, rising to every challenge that James MacMillan poses and coming out shining. They set a very high standard in their earlier recording of his music, but here they surpass it. The acoustic is very good indeed and this helps the Elysian’s perfect diction come through clear and bright, while the beautiful sound of Alexandra Caldon’s violin is perfectly balanced so that it does not detract from the vocal line and is never itself overpowered. The brief introductions to the music in the booklet are very good; full texts are given in English and, where applicable, Latin. This is a very fine disc and a must for any follower of the music of James MacMillan.

Stuart Sillitoe

Blow the trumpet in the new moon [5:52]
Children are a heritage of the Lord [4:36]
Miserere [11:55]
Domine non secundum peccata nostra [10:00]
One equal music [5:57]
To my successor [3:26]
When you see the millions of the mouthless dead [3:50]
Lassie Wad Ye Loe Me [4:51]
Domus infelix est [4:27]
Ave maris stella [4:49]
Cecilia Virgo [4:29]

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