Invocation - Choral music by Kenneth Leighton and James MacMillan
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) God’s grandeur (1957) [4:36]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959) Laudi alla Vergine Maria (2004)* [7:32]
Kenneth LEIGHTON Missa Sancti Thomae, Op. 40 (1962)* [20:02]
James MACMILLAN The Song of the Lamb (2008)* [7:21]; Invocation (2006)* [5:38]
Kenneth LEIGHTON Quam dilecta (1967)* [7:51]
James MACMILLAN Cantos Sagrados (1990) [22:23]
Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
David Saint (organ)
rec. 7 – 8 May 2010, St. Alban’s Church, Highgate, Birmingham DDD
Texts and English translations included
*denotes first recording
REGENT REGCD348 [74:56]

Sometimes the simplest ideas are so obvious that everyone overlooks them. In recent years there has been a good number of recordings of music by James MacMillan and an encouragingly growing representation of Kenneth Leighton’s music also. Yet, so far as I know, no one has devoted a disc to music by both of them. Yet the link is a strong one for MacMillan was a pupil – and an admiring one at that – of Leighton at Edinburgh University between 1977 and 1981; indeed, MacMillan was partly drawn to study there by the presence of Leighton, who was Professor of Music at the university.

So this disc is a very welcome conjoining of their music and it’s all the more welcome because Paul Spicer brings no less than five works into the record catalogue for the first time. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Spicer and his fine student choir on disc. Back in 2008 I reviewed a CD by them with great enthusiasm and this disc, though not so wide-ranging in terms of repertoire, deserves no less warm a welcome.

I’d not previously heard Leighton’s Missa Sancti Thomae, one of the works receiving a première recording here. Despite its Latin title the Mass is in English and it’s very good. There’s a vivid and expressive setting of the Creed while the Sanctus, though brief, is majestic. Paul Spicer singles out the “ravishingly beautiful” Agnus Dei for special mention, quite rightly, while the Gloria, which comes at the end, is energetic and exultant. This is a most welcome addition to the Leighton discography. The same can be said of Quam dilecta, another setting in English, this time of verses from Psalm 84. The piece, which is for unaccompanied choir, includes an important part for solo soprano, sung here with great assurance and winningly pure tone by Amy Secretan. This is an eloquent and expressive piece and I’m delighted to have discovered it, especially in such a sympathetically shaped performance.

There are several MacMillan recorded premières also. Indeed, one work had not previously been heard by its composer until he attended the recording sessions for this disc. This is The Song of the Lamb, which was first performed in St Paul, Minnesota by the choir for which it was written; MacMillan was unable to attend. The piece sets words from the Book of Revelation, a scriptural treasure trove for those seeking potent imagery. The chosen text clearly fired MacMillan’s imagination for the music is arresting. Particularly noteworthy is the huge climax at the words “Great and wonderful are thy deeds” (2:22 – 2:59). Here the sopranos are required to sustain a top A for eleven bars over the rest of the choir. It’s an imposing moment. By contrast Invocation is a much quieter and more reflective offering; in fact, its tone is very gentle. It’s a setting of a poem by Pope John Paul II, for whom MacMillan has a great admiration. The directness and surface simplicity of MacMillan’s music complements the depth of the late Pope’s thought and imagery - sample, for example, the way MacMillan sets the words “Be an eternal seismograph of the invisible real.”

Laudi alla Vergine Maria is a compositional tour de force. It sets an Italian text by Dante and significant use is made of solo voices – nine soloists are listed in the booklet, all of whom make strong contributions. Paul Spicer draws an apt comparison with the madrigals of Monteverdi. As usual with MacMillan the music burns with conviction, grabbing – and holding – the listener’s attention.

I know of at least one other recording of Cantos Sagrados – there may be others – a 2003 version by The Elysian Singers. That’s a fine performance, though Simon Smith rightly drew attention in his review to the somewhat distant organ sound. In fact on this new Regent disc both the organ and the singers are more closely recorded and there is a bit more impact as a result. In any event I don’t feel that the Birmingham choir need fear comparison; their performance is similarly excellent. This remarkable piece, cast in three movements, is very strongly related to MacMillan’s great interest in the so-called Liberation Theology which, with its challenging, left-leaning interpretation of Christianity, has done so much to influence the Catholic Church in Latin America in the last few decades.

MacMillan sets English translations of three Latin American poems, two of them by the Chilean, Ariel Dorfman (b. 1942). In each of the three movements he also interleaves an apposite Latin liturgical text. Though a good deal of the music in Cantos Sagrados is quiet the entire work is highly charged and, at times, even graphic. The searingly powerful opening of the first movement, for example, must be very demanding to sing. Paul Spicer’s expertly trained young singers deliver this Dorfman setting with biting conviction. The second movement, a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe, starts off innocently enough but the cruel irony of the poem is gradually revealed and as this happens MacMillan racks up the tension. The concluding poem, also by Dorfman is about the last moments of a man facing the firing squad and the murmured request for forgiveness that he receives from one of his executioners. It’s a chilling and gripping piece and the Birmingham singers perform it superbly. I gather from the notes that MacMillan has recently orchestrated the work. I’d like to hear that version but the superb realisation of the organ part by David Saint surely conveys the composer’s original intentions marvellously.

This is another outstanding disc from the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. That a choir of twenty-four students can give such assured and communicative performances of such a musically and emotionally demanding work as Cantos Sagrados goes a long way to explaining, I think, why there are so many top quality professional vocal ensembles in Britain today; they can draw on talent such as this when they need to replenish their ranks, But though my attention has been grabbed particularly by the performance of that MacMillan work it’s important to emphasise that the entire programme is executed to the same very high standard.

Congratulations are due not just to the performers but also to Regent for having the vision and commercial courage to release a disc that contains some challenging repertoire. This release showcases excellent young talent and introduces to the catalogue much fine music that has not been recorded previously. Isn’t this the sort of thing that CDs should be about?

Splendidly recorded and packaged with an excellent booklet, this disc is another feather in the caps of Birmingham Conservatoire and of Regent. More please!

John Quinn

This splendidly recorded disc is another feather in the caps of Birmingham Conservatoire and of Regent. More please!