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CD Review

James MacMillan


  • Epiclesis (Concerto for trumpet and orchestra)
  • Ninian (Concerto for clarinet and orchestra)
John Wallace, trumpet
John Cushing, clarinet
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
BIS CD-1069 DDD 61:15
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It is perhaps a paradox that the work of James MacMillan, a composer deeply dedicated to his Roman Catholic faith, is so noisy and extraverted. If the man hid his light under a bushel, though, the bushel would burst into flame out of faith and love. Because of several recordings on the BMG Catalyst and Bis labels, he is one the most recognized composers of classical music alive today. Through both volume and intensity (emotional and physical), his orchestral music must impress the listener, if it doesn't actually frighten him.

This is the fourth Bis CD devoted exclusively to his music; again, these are world première recordings. Epiclesis was written in 1993 and revised five years later. The title refers to a prayer or invocation, specifically one delivered to God to send the Holy Spirit to Communion and thereby to complete the Trinity. In so doing, transubstantiation – the actual transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ – is made possible. The work actually is a single-movement, 25-minute concerto for trumpet and orchestra. The first two-thirds of Epiclesis are largely free and improvisational in effect. The soloist rhapsodizes in quiet ecstasy, and the orchestra reacts torporously, but with increasing movement. At length, the soloist and the orchestra meet on the same spiritual plane, a process aided by the quotation of the plainsong Adoro te devote. A ferociously joyful dance signals the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and it is here that Epiclesis, its materials now organized in accents of wild praise, reaches its climax. Two antiphonal trumpets join the soloist to represent the Trinity. Its work done, the solo trumpet literally recedes (he walks offstage while playing), and the work comes to a rumbling, transformed close. MacMillan makes outrageous demands on his soloist – and John Wallace is one of England's finest – but one feels that this is done for expressive purposes and not for ego.

Ninian is no less theatrical. Ninian (or Ninia) was a saint who came to Scotland in the fourth or fifth century A.D. He is credited with fourteen miracles, including the raising of a thief who had been trampled by a bull he was stealing, the healing of a crippled youth, and a vision of the infant Christ in the Eucharist bread. There are three movements to this concerto, and they are tone-poems that illustrate these miracles. The first starts with the furious charge of bulls, the bellowing of the animals as the thief is killed, and then the clarinet – perhaps the compassionate voice of the saint – raising and pardoning the dead man. The bulls react with angry snorting and stamping, and legend has it that their hoof prints are visible in the Scottish rocks even today. In the second movement, young Pectgils dreams of Ninian – a lullaby ensues – who straightens and strengthens his crippled limbs. Restored, Pectgils awakens and dances – a cue for MacMillan to inject infectious dance rhythms into this score as well. The last movement is as long as the first two put together. After a mysterious introduction and aggressive passages in the brass, birdcalls usher in the Eucharistic rite. This being a work by MacMillan, the atmosphere of quiet devotion soon turns roughly transcendental as the miracle is revealed. The soloist dances in unfettered joy, then the dance subsides, and Ninian comes to an awed close. The clarinet part is played by John Cushing, who is the work's dedicatee, and who premièred it in 1996. (He is the Orchestra's principal clarinet.)

Russian-born Alexander Lazarev has been the Principal Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra since 1997. He sounds very comfortable with MacMillan's unabashedly theatrical vein of Roman Catholicism, and the music's many technical and interpretive demands do not stymie him. This is the Orchestra's first recording for Bis, and they benefit from the label's characteristically dramatic engineering. This CD is a sonic and musical showpiece, and if the idiom may be a little strong for traditional-minded listeners, MacMillan's sincerity (plus the sincerity of these performers) must win the day.

Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle