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Sir James MacMillan (b1959)

One equal music & other choral works

The Elysian Singers, Sam Laughton (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: October 2017
University College School, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: June 2019
Total duration: 64 minutes 12 seconds

Beginning with the blazing choral fanfare Blow the trumpet in the new moon, this programme explores the spiritual and secular texts that have influenced MacMillan over the years, and includes his monumental setting of the Miserere.


‘Large-scale choral works by James MacMillan, such as his early Seven Last Words from the Cross or the more recent Stabat mater, have received plenty of critical attention in the past, so it’s good at last to see a disc featuring the composer’s shorter, a cappella pieces … MacMillan’s strength lies in his ability to fuse sacred polyphonic, secular popular, folk and modernist elements into a musical language that remains distinct and immediately identifiable … this is an impressive recording overall’ (Gramophone)

‘This is an excellent introduction to the choral compositions of Sir James MacMillan, covering as it does selections from both his sacred and secular output. While I am happy to recommend this as an introduction for listeners who have yet to make the musical acquaintance of the leading Scottish composer of his generation (he was born in 1959) I am sure there will be plenty to interest those already familiar with his works’ (Cross Rhythms)

‘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’ (MusicWeb International)
MacMillan’s blazing ‘choral fanfare’ Blow the trumpet in the new moon was commissioned by The Bach Choir in 2016 to commemorate the 140th anniversary of its founding concert, being the first complete performance in Britain of Bach’s Mass in B minor in 1876. The composer writes:

It is a setting of some joyful lines from Psalm 81, evoking musical instruments and especially the trumpet. I used to be a trumpeter myself and I try here to fuse the sound of the brassy fanfare into a purely choral sound, unaccompanied and full of extrovert and bold figures and passagework.

There can be no greater contrast than the beautifully poised Children are a heritage of the Lord, composed for the Salisbury family to mark the 400th anniversary of Hatfield House.

The setting of the Ash Wednesday tract Domine, non secundum peccata nostra was written for St John’s Cambridge and combines solo violin with the choir. The violin’s different roles—background arpeggiando figures, foreground strong pizzicato chords and longer solo leading into the final repeat of the first section gives the piece a sense of development through its rondo shape but ultimately leaving the choir with the last word.

MacMillan’s monumental setting of Psalm 51, Miserere (long associated with Ash Wednesday) was commissioned for a 2009 festival in Antwerp, where it was performed by The Sixteen, a choir with which MacMillan has had a long and deep association. It draws on many characteristics of the composer’s mature choral style, from folk-like melodies to Scotch snap rhythms, from bitonality to canonic textures, and from plainchant to dramatic and explosive expressions of feeling. The composer writes:

It is through-composed but structured in a series of interlocking sections, and bound together by a number of recurring motifs. I have nodded towards Allegri’s masterful setting by referencing the psalm chant found in his setting. However, my version of the chant is harmonised, once in a relatively traditional manner, and then later, ethereally and with floating drones. The opening melody, based upon a minor mode, eventually recurs at the very end in its major, with a sense of resignation and hope.

When MacMillan was commissioned to write a short motet for the enthronement of the Welsh-born Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, he set To my successor, an inscription by George Herbert on the hall mantelpiece at Bemerton Rectory, near Salisbury.

One equal music sets the prayer ‘Bring us, O Lord, God’, a poetic paraphrase by Eric Milner-White from a sermon by John Donne. Like the Vaughan poem, it is comforting vision of the afterlife. It has been set by a number of composers, and indeed this is the second setting by MacMillan himself, premièred as recently as May 2017.

The Scottish war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley was just 20 years old when he died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. His harrowing poem When you see the millions of the mouthless dead, perhaps his ost famous work, is notable for its spare unsentimental style, and its stark uncompromising message. MacMillan’s setting was premiered in his home town Cumnock in 2015 on the centenary of Sorley’s death.

MacMillan is not the first composer to have been enraptured by Scottish folk tunes and poems. A born Lowlander, he chose to write his own folk-like melody for the anonymous Scots poem Lassie, wad ye loe me?

Domus infelix est was composed for the Cumnock Tryst, the festival established by James MacMillan in the Ayrshire town of his early years. The poem is attributed to William Mickle (1734-88) and the ‘lord’ referred to is Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The Latin text of Cecilia Virgo dates from the 1500s and MacMillan chose ‘to draw on the heritage of richly contrapuntal music from the sixteenth century’. The work is scored for double choir, allowing the composer to make full use of ‘the multiplication of voice parts, as well as the antiphonal duality of the split choir’.

Ave maris stella was commissioned by Truro Cathedral Choir and is a wholly chordal, simple and highly effective setting of this Vesper Hymn. The ending has the soprano voices breaking away from the rest of the choir in a soaring descant.

Signum Classics © 2019

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