This is the second disc of music by James MacMillan
that Martin Baker and his Westminster Cathedral Choir have made for
Hyperion. Their previous disc was made as long ago as 2000 and led Simon
Foster, at the end of his review
to describe the composer as “a unique and vital voice in British
music making.” I couldn’t agree more and the many discs
of MacMillan that I’ve heard since then have simply reinforced
This new programme gets off to a stunning start with the hugely imposing
Tu es Petrus
. This was written for the visit by Pope Benedict
XVI to Westminster Cathedral in 2010 during his Papal Visit to the British
Isles. To say that the piece makes a considerable impact, recorded in
the vast building for which it was written, would be an understatement.
MacMillan’s writing features potent deep organ sonorities, majestic
writing for the brass and the choir delivers the vocal parts with thrilling
attack. Right at the end of the disc we hear a shortened instrumental
version of the same music which was played during the Gospel procession
at the same Mass. There are other ceremonial pieces on the programme.
One is Ecce sacerdos magnus
, written for the consecration service
of the Bishop of Aberdeen in 2011. This is much simpler in design: men’s
voices sing a unison melody accompanied by organ. The writing is fairly
restrained and simple but interest is added by the inclusion of parts
for two shining trumpets. Summae Trinitati
, written for the consecration
of Archbishop Nichols of Westminster is more ceremonial with its brass
fanfares, though it’s not on the same scale as Tu es Petrus
it includes a more gentle, reflective central section.
Also composed for the installation of Archbishop Nichols is Benedictus
. This is a cappella
but, like its companion piece, it
includes a good deal of arresting writing, even when the music is quiet.
The vocal lines contain quite an amount of the ‘Gaelic’
ornamentation that is so often heard in MacMillan’s vocal music.
Ave maris stella
is a lovely piece, written for Truro Cathedral.
Throughout the music moves in block chords yet within that discipline
MacMillan fashions a great deal of variety. The piece begins quietly
but contains some stronger episodes. The soaring treble line that adorns
the lovely Amens makes for a marvellous conclusion.
Tota pulchra es
is a real surprise packet. In his good notes
Paul Spicer reminds us of the serene settings to which we’re used
by composers such as Duruflé and Bruckner. MacMillan’s
response to the text is a world away from these gentle, prayerful settings.
He has written an unbridled, dancing and joyful setting. The extrovert
piece features a spectacular independent organ part, which sounds magnificent
on the Westminster Cathedral organ. The music has great energy and makes
for a fine contrast with Ave maris stella.
This is a fabulous,
celebratory piece and it’s superbly performed here.
The only piece about which I’m unsure is After Virtue
that’s because I don’t yet understand it. It’s really
a secular piece and, most unusually, MacMillan has chosen to set not
just a passage of prose but the last page of a book of the same name
by the contemporary author, Alisdair MacIntyre, which the composer describes
as “a landmark tome in moral philosophy and a profound criticism
of modern moral discourse.” The words are not an easy read and
I’m not sure that comprehension is aided by the fact that we see
the words out of their context. This is a work with which I need to
engage more, I think.
It will be noted that while almost all the music on this disc was written
in the last few years The Edinburgh Te Deum was written as long ago
as 1978. This is a product of MacMillan’s undergraduate days at
Edinburgh University but it was never performed at the time - perhaps
because the music was beyond the capabilities of a student choir? -
and it had to wait for its first performance until November 2011 when
it was sung in Westminster Cathedral. Even at the age of 21 MacMillan
was writing assured, arresting vocal music and the important organ part
is stretching too. I’m amazed that this often powerful setting
lay hidden from public gaze for so long.
The most extended work on the disc is the set of three Tenebrae Responsories
I first encountered these remarkable pieces in the excellent recording
by the ensemble that commissioned them, Cappella Nova. It was Gary Higginson’s
that alerted me to the availability of the disc and I lost no time in
adding it to my collection. I dissent from Gary’s view that there
are times in this work when MacMillan appears to be going through the
motions and, with no disrespect to Cappella Nova, I wonder if he might
revise his view were he to hear this searing Westminster performance.
I would not for one minute suggest that the new recording is ‘better’
than the Cappella Nova for both have a great deal to commend them but
they are very different. In the first place the Westminster choir is
significantly larger than Cappella Nova which, if I read the booklet
correctly, numbered eight singers for this work. A key difference is
that Cappella Nova comprised adult singers - all professionals, I think
- including female sopranos whereas the Westminster choir has boy trebles
on the top line. Finally, Linn’s recording of Cappella Nova -
which is very good indeed - was made in what I suspect was a smaller
acoustic at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and the singers are rather
closer to the microphones. The Westminster choir is somewhat further
away from the microphones and they’re singing in the vast space
of the cathedral. The result is a more resonant recording and the Westminster
choir, its trebles in particular, has a cutting edge to the sound which
offers a different perspective on the music. Nowhere is this more apparent
than in the third Responsory where the trebles’ repeated cries
of ‘Jesum’ are almost strident - and I mean that as a genuine
compliment; the sound really suits the music. Earlier on, at the very
start of the work I think that a combination of the recording and the
sound of the choir means that the Westminster singers impart more of
a sense of sepulchral gloom to MacMillan’s music. At the very
end the Westminster Head Chorister, Alexander Hopkins, delivers his
taxing solo with tremendous assurance; he has a fine treble voice and,
evidently, excellent musical instincts. So, for me, this new recording
has the edge though still find a great deal to admire in the Linn recording.
Anyone who responds as I do to the searing intensity of MacMillan’s
magnificently eloquent Seven Last Words from the Cross
will find these Tenebrae Responsories
an equally disturbing and
moving musical experience.
This is a splendid disc. The music, as I hope I’ve indicated,
is compelling and full of interest. The performances by Martin Baker
and his extremely fine choir strike me as well-nigh definitive. The
contributions by London Brass and by Peter Stevens at the cathedral’s
mighty organ add significantly to the experience. The Hyperion recording
team of producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt have produced,
as they so often do, an excellent recording which reveals lots of detail
yet conveys the ambience of the cathedral’s large and no doubt
tricky acoustic. This is a disc that shows yet again that James MacMillan
is one of the most articulate and compelling of contemporary composers.