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Hyperion Records

CDA67867 - MacMillan: Choral Music
Angel by William Morris (1834-1896)
Courtesy of Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London
Recording details: June 2010
Wells Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: June 2011
Total duration: 78 minutes 42 seconds

'Wells Cathedral Choir gives a compelling survey of choral pieces by one of Britain's most important composers … MacMillan's musical voice remains breathtakingly distinctive and true. This disc is a worthy recorded tribute to a truly significant figure in contemporary music. Highly recommended' (Choir & Organ)

'The Wells singing is of a consistently high standard (MacMillan's trademark use of melisma is particularly well assimilated) and organist Jonathan Vaughn delivers a scintillating account of Le tombeau de Georges Rouault, the magnificent solo piece which ends this absorbing programme' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Here is another splendid release of recent British choral music from the choir of Wells Cathedral and its superb director Matthew Owens … the choir is, in a word, magnificent. Singing with impressive self-assurance and clearly revelling in MacMillan's uncanny ability to make everything sound perfectly natural even when the technical skills involved are extraordinarily demanding' (International Record Review)

Choral Music

James MacMillan is renowned for his highly original yet accessible choral music. His prolific output displays an intrinsic understanding of the human voice and his music will undoubtedly stand the test of time. MacMillan’s work is inseparable from its composer’s committed adherence to Roman Catholicism. A sense of this religious belief imbues much of his work, which seeks to combine the sacred with the everyday.

This disc highlights the astonishing variety prevalent in his music, from the powerful and stylistically complex Magnificat and Nunc dimittis to the beautiful and intimate On Love composed in Macmillan’s student days for the wedding of close friends.

Wells Cathedral Choir is in fine voice and they tackle the more challenging works with aplomb and conviction. With their sensitive interpretations and luminous sound it is easy to see why they have been labelled England’s finest cathedral choir.

The closing work on the disc is a hugely demanding work for solo organ, Le tombeau de Georges Rouault, one of only five works for the instrument written by the composer. Organist Jonathan Vaughn gives a masterly performance of this highly virtuosic and elaborate work.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
James MacMillan is the most prolific composer of significant choral music of his generation. His sympathy and ‘feel’ for the voice mark him out as someone whose music will stand the test of time not only because of its intrinsic quality but also because it is music which people want to sing. He manages this while writing serious music that does not pamper to the widespread cult of kitsch or the sentimental—he does not plough the limited furrow of one sound world where a composer hits upon a goldmine of beautiful sounds which he then mines to extinction. If this disc demonstrates one thing above all it is the variety within MacMillan’s output. Of course he has his familiar traits and often-used fingerprints. Which composer does not? But these figurations, decorative motifs and ornamental patterns, personal as they may be, link him to a distant ancestry which gives his music deep roots and an authority hallowed by the imprimatur of historical perspective. Also, MacMillan writes for all abilities. Where many serious contemporary composers writing for singers compose without reference to their range of ability, MacMillan writes complex music for professionals and high-achieving amateurs, and straightforward, even easy music for the less able. All this is achieved without compromising stylistic integrity. It is a notable achievement and examples of both extremes are heard on this disc.

James MacMillan is a rare example of a composer whose music is almost exclusively related to his faith and to the issues which adherence to a faith in God raises. The depth of sincerity in this music will be abundantly clear from the music performed here as will the variety of style, texture, colour and forces. His is indeed a unique voice for our troubled times.

The Jubilate Deo which opens the programme was written for Wells Cathedral and premiered in May 2009. It is exuberant in its virtuosity but dark-hued in its sound world. The canticle opens with organ semiquavers which begin in the pedals and swirl around in waves of rising and falling patterns throughout the first section. When the voices enter they gradually build from basses to sopranos (trebles) in forceful chant-like phrases. A strong arrival on a plain C minor chord heralds a new section (‘For the Lord is gracious’). Here the choir has staggered entries and strongly ornamental melismas (a number of notes to one syllable). The organ interjects massive blocks of sound between the choir’s phrases continuing into the ‘Gloria’ until the words ‘world without end’ have been sung. A chordal version of the opening semiquaver figure leads to a triumphant conclusion.

The unusually dark-hued nature of this work relates to its dedicatee, Willie Pondexter, a young man from Oklahoma convicted of killing an elderly woman during a robbery at her house in Clarksville, Texas, in 1993. Pondexter was on Death Row in Huntsville, Texas, when a few years later MacMillan struck up what became a most unusual friendship. He visited Pondexter and is even now not certain why he initiated the contact. Pondexter was executed in 2009 and MacMillan admits to not having fully got over it. As he says: ‘It was a strange, bewildering and sad episode altogether.’ This is the background to the mood of the Jubilate Deo and is also a reminder of how ‘hands on’ MacMillan can be in his pursuit of causes, principles and faith, and his reaction to, for instance, political repression, and how these things feed into his music.

Serenity was written for the 150th anniversary celebrations of St Aloysius’ College in Glasgow, the school MacMillan’s children attended. St Aloysius is an independent Catholic school founded in 1859 which has a spacious, domed neo-baroque chapel. MacMillan’s work is a setting of two texts: one by St Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) in Latin, and the other attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) in English. The Aquinas text is a well-known Benediction hymn and Niebuhr’s famous prayer, universally known as ‘Serenity’, gives MacMillan his title. The first section setting Aquinas’s words is a good example of MacMillan’s ability to write a straightforward setting. Indeed, MacMillan uses the piece frequently with his own church choir in Glasgow. It is, in effect, harmonized chant doubled by the organ. In the second section, to Neibuhr’s words, the sopranos sing an ornamented chant—unmistakeably redolent of MacMillan—over an organ pedal point. This pairing is repeated, with the ‘O salutaris hostia’ hymn acting as a refrain between verses of Neibuhr’s ‘Serenity’. In the last verse the sopranos descant the three key words of the opening of the poem—‘serenity, courage, wisdom’—over the lower voices, which sing a Latin doxology in unison using the melody given to the Latin words throughout. As the descant dies away so the Latin words grow to a strong conclusion and the organ carries the anthem loudly to its end.

The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis was commissioned in two parts. The Magnificat, in its original version with orchestral accompaniment, was commissioned by the BBC for the first broadcast of Choral Evensong of the new millennium, which came from Wells and was sung by the choirs of Wells Cathedral and St John’s College, Cambridge, with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer. The Nunc dimittis was commissioned by Winchester Cathedral and first performed (alongside the Magnificat in its version with organ accompaniment) on 15 July 2000. The two movements together form a large-scale work that takes over twenty minutes to perform if the full introduction to the Magnificat is used (as here).

The atmosphere MacMillan sets up is quietly meditative and the vocal parts seem to grow out of the stillness of the introduction. A sense of suspended animation, and of awe, is created, giving Mary’s song of praise at being chosen as the mother of Jesus a palpable feeling of wonder. The choir’s simple, unaccompanied, chant-like phrases are interspersed by organ interludes that are Messiaen-like in their evocation of birdsong. A brief moment of darkly latent power from the organ at ‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’ comes again before ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’, but this time turns into an extended interlude. The whole movement barely raises its voice and one is reminded of Herbert Howells’ stricture that ‘the mighty should be put down without a brute force which would deny this canticle’s feminine association’. Nevertheless, the powerfully effective build up towards the ‘Gloria Patri’—through the words ‘as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever’, with many repetitions of the words ‘for ever’—leads quite naturally into the massive blocks of sound introduced in the ‘Gloria’. Again, the choir and the organ have separate phrases, the organ playing tutti and the choir singing their chant-like phrases homophonically, a little reminiscent of Tippett’s only setting of these words. The Amens are sung piano by the choir with strong organ interjections. But, at last, the opening of the Magnificat is reiterated by the organ quietly and the canticle reaches its conclusion with a gentle chord of A major. The dedication is to Joyce McMillan, a journalist with The Scotsman newspaper.

The Nunc dimittis begins with static long low notes for the basses and organ pedals. This is Simeon’s song of thanksgiving at the end of his life and MacMillan sets up an opening which exudes exhaustion—almost as if the old man cannot raise his head from the dust to utter his words. The organ breaks into birdsong-like material again after the words ‘according to thy word’, and the pattern of choral phrase with gentle accompaniment and organ interlude with birdsong figuration continues. The words ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’ begin with the direction serene, but the music soon expands and develops. The organ builds through the vocal parts to develop a toccata-like figuration for the start of the ‘Gloria Patri’ and the choir sings long lines divided between sopranos/tenors and altos/basses. There is a climax and a pause at the words ‘world without end’ before the Amens which recall the ‘Gloria’ to the Magnificat, with huge organ chords and right-hand clusters. A wonderfully lyrical falling phrase, very much like the last movement of MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, takes the dynamic from forte to piano, and the movement ends as it started with the basses intoning a low E. The Nunc dimittis is dedicated to Patrick Reilly, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Glasgow University and, as MacMillan wryly notes: ‘a fellow apologist for Catholicism’.

Tremunt videntes angeli was written for the dedication service on 9 May 2002 of the Millennium Window by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi in the Resurrection chapel of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh. MacMillan takes his text from the fifth-century hymn ‘Aeterne rex altissime’. Simple in form but a step up in complexity from Serenity, the opening verse is given to tenors and basses over a long bass drone pitched on a low D. The second verse is given similar material but is sung by the upper voices. The verses are separated by a tutti refrain in richly harmonized garb. The doxology, coming out of the second of these refrains, has a soprano (treble) duet in thirds whilst the rest of the choir sings an improvised Alleluia on given pitches. (MacMillan gives a suggested template to follow if they wish.) The refrain brings the work to its conclusion. The use of this improvisation technique, where a murmur of voices each sings its own gentle paean of praise, brings to mind that wonderful image by the poet Alcuin of York (c740–804), translated by the inimitable Helen Waddell, who wrote: ‘… and there was a great silence in heaven. And a thousand thousand saying: “Glory to the Lord King.”’ MacMillan’s trademark ornamental figures characterize the vocal lines of this work and remind us of his Scottish ancestry, the inspirational music of Robert Carver (c1485–c1570), and the influence of Scottish folk music. It is dedicated to Griffith Symmons Roberts, MacMillan’s godson and the youngest son of Michael Symmons Roberts, the poet with whom MacMillan has collaborated extensively.

On Love was written in 1984 for a wedding in the chapel of the Catholic Chaplaincy to Edinburgh University, where MacMillan was a student at the time. He writes: ‘On Love was written for a couple of friends [Steven and Clare McEvanney] for their wedding, and was sung at their Nuptial Mass by the bride’s sister [Barbara Kelly], with me, a student at the time, vamping along on the organ.’ It is a beautifully lyrical piece which sets words—aptly a homily on love—from The Prophet (1923) by the Lebanese poet and writer Khalil Gibran. It is interesting to see so much of MacMillan’s ornamental writing in place so early in his career. The organ part is full of gently figurative writing which is set against the beautiful simplicity of the solo vocal line. The piece grows in intensity and dynamic all the way to the climax right at the end.

… here in hiding … was written in 1993 and is dedicated to MacMillan’s twins Aidan and Clare, who were born on 10 June that year. He recalls writing the piece with one or other of them strapped to his chest. ‘I would try to calm them and then snatch a few more bars of the piece at my desk before they would erupt again.’ Hardly the easiest time for a composer, making the serene end result even more remarkable. It was commissioned by The Hilliard Ensemble and premiered in Glasgow in August 1993. The scoring represents the constitution of the Hilliards, one countertenor, two tenors and a baritone. The Latin text is by St Thomas Aquinas, the hymn Adoro te devote. But MacMillan chooses to incorporate Gerard Manley Hopkins’s translation into the setting and thereby ‘jumbling’, as he puts it, the Latin with the English. He also notes that: ‘The different texts are sometimes combined, sometimes fragmented or intercut to form new relationships and a new order of progression.’ The work was written immediately after MacMillan’s Trumpet Concerto and he has written that ‘both pieces explore similar musical and theological territory … the mystery of the Eucharist.’

This work is an example of MacMillan allowing himself free rein, stylistically, knowing that he was writing for professionals. The music is correspondingly complex. The plainsong chant Adore te devote is magically woven into the structure (as it is in the Trumpet Concerto). The piece is episodic and uses the voices in imaginative combinations to create a richly diverse range of textures. A beautiful tenor solo midway is followed by warmly expressive music and a highly effective fade-out at the end.

Give me justice is a straightforward setting of words from Psalm 42 (Hebrew) or 43 (Greek) written to be used as an introit for the fifth Sunday of Lent. It is scored for unaccompanied choir and is structured round a refrain (with which the setting begins) and a pair of verses set as free chant. The refrain is built over a bass pedal point on a C, which contrasts with the essential freedom of the chant. This is another example of MacMillan’s ability to write extremely straightforward music that still bears all the hallmarks of his style with which we have become familiar.

Of The Lamb has come for us from the House of David MacMillan writes that it was ‘written for an ordination of a young Dominican who went on to be the Head of an order in England, Allan White OP. My schola of student choristers (Schola Sancti Alberti) at Edinburgh University’s Catholic Chaplaincy sang it first in 1979.’ The twenty-year-old composer knew then how to write practically for the forces at his disposal and he makes the most of a supportive organ part. The voices begin in unison and move to four-part harmony. A method he came to use often in future compositions—the strong organ interlude antiphonally juxtaposed with unaccompanied voices—is found here at the climax, and is followed by a treble solo and a return to the unison voice of the opening.

At the time of writing, MacMillan has written five works for organ of which only the short Meditation (2010) is more recent than Le tombeau de Georges Rouault, written in 2003 for Thomas Trotter. Rouault (1871–1958) was a highly significant French artist who, as MacMillan notes ‘has always been a constant fascination for me—the way he embraces the divine by using quite ordinary, mundane and profane images—of clowns and prostitutes etc. He seemed to be another Catholic artist attempting to find the numinous in the everyday.’ MacMillan also described Rouault’s work as ‘dark, subtle and moving in its observation of the frailty of human life … The archetypes and characters captured in his work were the subliminal inspiration behind much of the material in this music.’

The opening interval of a minor ninth is seminal to the whole work. The initial melodic line uses it twice in a phrase which is like holding up a distorting mirror to a chorale melody—and here is the first clue to this work, the mirroring of the mundane by the bizarre, or the bizarre by the mundane … which is which? The work is based on this opening theme, which is heard very clearly in the opening sections and more subtly as the piece progresses, in the manner of a theme and variations. As the music becomes ever more complex (it is highly virtuosic) so the theme becomes subsumed by toccata-like figuration which leaps all over the instrument in imitation of fairground acrobats. MacMillan gives other clues to his characters with markings including brash and clowning, Burlando, energico, and reedy, brassy. We have sleazy glissandi for prostitutes and mock dignity for judges. It encapsulates a whole world between double bars, as Rouault’s work did within a picture frame. But even when the theme is only hinted at, that interval of a minor ninth is there glaring at us like a clown through white makeup. One section (bar 84) begins with three of them thrown down together—G sharp/A in the pedals, A sharp/B in the left hand, and C/D flat in the right hand. In the Andante scherzando section, the longest and most dramatically virtuoso part of the work, MacMillan develops a long-breathed theme for the pedals which grows out of this interval. In its chorale-like progress it seems to represent the longing for Christ’s steadying hand on the tiller of the menagerie of human life, represented here by displaced octaves, scurrying semiquavers, fragmented chordal figures, leering motifs and, finally, a simply ‘wild’ pounding of the keyboards into silence. After a stuttering restart, pianissimo, MacMillan brings back a whole chorale prelude-like section from early in the work and he finishes with the opening theme given in octaves, forte but also cantabile, before two final crashing bars of discord. It is a tour de force of imagination and execution.

Paul Spicer © 2011

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