James MacMillan
Choral music – “Psalms, Poems and Folksongs”
The Elysian Singers with Alexandra Caldon (violin)
Sam Laughton

Recorded 28-29 October 2017 at University College School, Hampstead, London
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD575
Duration: 64 minutes
Reviewed: June 2019

There seems to be no reduction in the prodigious quantity of sacred music coming from the pen of Sir James MacMillan. This Signum recording, mostly of relatively recent material, forms an imaginative response to a variety of liturgical and specific cultural events broadly divided into “Psalms, Poems and Folksongs” and all bearing evidence of MacMillan’s deep religious faith.

However, it’s not a sequence to hear at one sitting since the eleven a cappella works (albeit two have violin support) taken together form an incense-filled sobriety, imbued with the spirit of the confessional, intensified by two extended Ash Wednesday offerings. These latter comprise the familiar ‘Miserere’ and an atmospheric setting of ‘Domine non secundum peccata nostra’. By the time you reach the setting of George Herbert’s ‘To my successor’, beginning with its cheerless “Alleluias”, followed by ‘When you see the millions of the mouthless dead’ (Charles Hamilton Sorley) a gloom has settled on proceedings.

But relief arrives with ‘Lassie, wad ye loe me?’. Its folk-inspired melody, drones and rapt harmonies are all affectionately delivered by The Elysian Singers, whose warmth of tone (and that too of soprano Lois Gallaher) makes an attractive counterweight. So too ‘Domus infelix est’ (a Latin translation of a Scottish poem related to the luckless Bonnie Prince Charlie) in which Alexandra Caldon’s beguiling violin wraps itself around the chorale-like phrases in evermore decorative figuration before morphing first into a jig and then an elaborate cadenza.

‘One equal music’ itself, beginning with John Donne’s familiar text “Bring us, O Lord God”, is at some remove from Sir William Harris’s sublime setting. Ethereal and searching in manner, MacMillan’s celestial vision haunts rather than comforts and is not helped by some strident singing. A similarly forced performance mars the emphatic ‘Blow the trumpet in the new moon’, generating effortful tone and problems of intonation. Much the same regrettably inhabits the taxing ‘Cecilia virgo’, The Elysian Singers’ technique stretched to its limits.

There are some fine pieces here and are all given with enthusiasm; yet while the presence of a violin provides interest it does little to alleviate severity of tone that informs this mostly rewarding release. The booklet includes texts and translations.

 

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