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CD Review

James MacMillan


  • The World's Ransoming
  • Concerto for Cello & Orchestra
Christine Pendrill, English horn
Raphael Wallfisch, cello
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS CD-989 DDD 61:05
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  • Symphony "Vigil"
Fine Arts Brass Ensemble
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS CD-990 DDD 48:18
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Together, these three works make up Triduum, an Easter triptych that Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) wrote in 1996-97 for the London Symphony and Mstislav Rostropovich, in both of his roles as cellist and as conductor. MacMillan's intense Catholic faith has been the impetus behind many of his pieces. With Triduum, he has taken that intensity to new extremes. It is no exaggeration to say that this music is staggering in its scope, technical requirements, timbral innovations, and emotional impact. MacMillan allows the three works to be performed separately, but hearing them sequentially reveals their thematic interconnections. Continuous listening also allows the listener to participate in the explosive spiritual trajectory that they describe.

The World's Ransoming is a concerto for English horn and orchestra. (On this CD, the soloist is the London Symphony Orchestra's Christine Pendrill, the concerto's dedicatee.) MacMillan is not the first composer in recent years to exploit the melancholy timbres of the solo instrument. (Aaron Jay Kernis's Colored Field is also a major addition to the English horn's repertoire.) While the work is not programmatic, Maundy Thursday is its subject. It introduces themes and distinctive sounds that will reappear in the two subsequent works. Throughout the work's continuous 20-minute span, the music slowly pulls itself up from depths, the solo instrument "wending its solitary way through and alongside the other instruments of the orchestra," to quote from Ronald Weitzman's excellent annotations. Later, at the work's climax, we hear brass fanfares that seem to derive from the chanting in Russian Orthodox churches. MacMillan avoids the traditional development of themes in favor of more episodic construction. At times the music almost seems like a group improvisation, albeit one governed by the composer's rules, and carefully shaped by the performers.

The Cello Concerto is in three movements: "The Mockery," "The Reproaches," and "Dearest Wood and Dearest Iron." In this work, the composer depicts (again, not programmatically) the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The cello shifts between protagonist, antagonist, and commentator roles. In the first movement, MacMillan takes a hint from composer Peter Maxwell Davies and Vesalii Icones by using vulgar dance-hall music to describe Christ's humiliation at the hands of the Roman soldiers and the crowd. At the end of the movement, the orchestra shouts out the Latin plainsong Crucem tuam adoremus, Domine; MacMillan frequently uses plainsong in the Triduum to "ground" the subject in a historical context. "The Reproaches" is a turning point in the concerto, and in the triptych as a whole. This movement is a quiet but highly intense contemplation of the cross. MacMillan interjects a contemporary and ecumenical note by quoting a Protestant hymn, Dunblane Cathedral, as an allusion to the premeditated shooting death of 16 children and their teacher by a lone gunman, an atrocity that took place as MacMillan worked on the concerto. The movement reaches a climax with the awful, hollow sound of percussion, as nails are repeatedly driven into Christ's hands and feet. Finally, "Dearest Wood and Dearest Iron" is a contemplation of the crucified Christ. It moves in a mournful tread to an agonized apex whose intensity is practically unparalleled in music. The comes an extraordinary ending in which the cello improvises on a fluttering, striving figure, as if it were a moth beating its wings against a screen.

Symphony "Vigil," the final section of Triduum, is less concertante in style than the two previous works, but it does feature a prominent role for brass quintet, whose members are initially offstage, but later deploy themselves around the performance space. Violins are withheld from the orchestra until the last of the three movements. "Light," the first movement, is anything but – the music's sepulchral groaning seems to depict the fitful stirrings of an entombed body. Here, MacMillan makes effective and eerie use of a thundersheet. Hints of the resurrection to come come from the brass. The work surges forward in "Tuba sonet salutaris," the second movement. The brass quintet appears and its members sound "the trumpet of salvation," and a plainchant figure is developed throughout the movement's 12-minute span. "Water" brings the symphony – and the Triduum – to a close. The stone rolls away from the entrance to Christ's tomb with a hammering quite unlike that which described his nailing to the cross. Important elements in this movement are an almost barbarously joyful dance that could have come from Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, and an climactic welter of sound in which elements from earlier in the Triduum are recalled and transfigured. The symphony concludes with quiet, "eternal" music that expresses joy at the resurrection, a sense of mystery, and perhaps a suggestion that the story of Christ and mankind is not yet finished.

In the long run, these few words cannot express the richness of MacMillan's Triduum; the preceding description was intended to whet your appetite and to encourage you to explore this music. The three works place high demands on the listener, but I think they repay repeated listenings with an ever-greater appreciation of not just their emotional content, but their construction as well. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Vänskä play Triduum with heroic commitment, and special praise must be given to soloists Pendrill and Wallfisch for the strong melodic core they give to their individual works. As always, BIS's engineers produce demonstration quality sound, and this is music that must have provoked them too, given its dynamic range and challenges of balance.

Fiercely recommended, and essential for anyone concerned about contemporary classical music.

Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle