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CD Review

James MacMillan

  • Seven Last Words from the Cross
  • On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin
  • Te Deum
Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
Hyperion CDA67460 68m DDD
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This is the Record of the Month for August, indeed not only from Hyperion but from the whole stock of choral issues made available for this same month. James Macmillan (b. 1959) is today considered one of Britian's most distinguished composers and the main piece on this CD will, I am sure, enhance further Macmillan's reputation as a composer of sacred works.

In Macmillan's own words, the greatest influences on his art are Leighton, Messiaen and Shostakovich and 'Seven Last Words from the Cross' owes much to the vision and dramatic power of these three 20th century giants, although the piece is a highly original conception with the composer's fertile imagination stamped all over it. Commissioned by the BBC in 1994 for Television, the work is terse, dark and deeply emotional, get for all its crude depiction of total suffering, the listener is left with a spiritual fulfilment of intense gratitude and joy. This is music where one must be prepared to suffer in silence if he wants to grasp and appreciate the immense beauty of Macmillan's stupendous creation.

The album also presents two première recordings by the same composer. 'On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin' was written for the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1997. Set to a marvellous poem by Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) this work lingers on long after the music ceases. The 'Te Deum' was composed in 2001 on the occasion of the Queen's Jubilee. First performed at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter and Vincula in the Tower of London, it is wholly original in both its approach and setting, and like many of the composer's works, this substantial piece is full of that contemplative aura which induces the listener to that sense of 'silence and sacrifice' which brings about transformation.

Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton give riveting and impassioned interpretations, particularly the 'Seven Last Words' where their empathy with this ultimate dramatic event in history is profoundly strong. Paul Spicer's notes are revelatory, while the choice of Craigie Aitchison's 'Crucifixion' (1995) on the front of the booklet could not have been more telling. First rate engineering makes this disc one of the contenders for 'Record of the Year'.

Copyright © 2005, Gerald Fenech