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Recordings

James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
28 Nov 2005

MACMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross

The compositions of John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and Henryk Górecki have accustomed us to the degree that religious spirituality has found serious musical voice in the late twentieth century. In their works, a profound language of musical mysticism is wed to various liturgical evocations, creating compositions that seem both authentic in their expression and unusually personal in their genesis.

James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross

Polyphony; the Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton (cond.)

Hyperion CDA67460 [CD]

 

In the next generation, the Scottish composer James MacMillan has emerged as a strong heir to this tradition, and in the present recording his “Seven last Words from the Cross,” “On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin,” and “Te Deum” are striking examples of the ways in which this is so.

“The Seven Last Words” is a large-scale work, commissioned by the BBC in 1994. Its overall power and control of scale may remind one of Pärt’s Passio, but where Pärt is intensely minimalistic, MacMillan employs strong contrasts and juxtapositon to address the drama of the Crucifixion. Often haunting, the score takes one into the reflective inner depths that surround the words of Jesus on the cross, while at the same time immersing one in the dramatic progression of events on Golgotha. The dynamic interplay of dramatic progression and inner reflection is, of course, familiar from works like the Bach Passions, but there it is a textual division of duty—alternating prose narrative and poetic reflection—that elicits and brings order to the interplay; MacMillan’s texts, on the other hand, are the scriptural words from the cross with various liturgical texts from Holy Week (mostly Good Friday), and their weave is generally a smooth one: the interplay is unitive and organic—not bi-modal. Chant-like formulas, voluminous climaxes, medieval evocations of early counterpoint, English pastoral string writing, angular aggression—all of these are employed by MacMillan in a way that animates both the drama and the reflection in a powerfully integrated composition, with voice and orchestra sharing equal portions of the expressive burden.

I was struck by this same sense of integration in the setting of the Te Deum, as well. The opening (“We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord . . .”) juxtaposes slow-moving, low, male chordal declamations—reminiscent of Russian liturgical music—with a rhapsodic soprano line. The chordal texture seems to describe and narrate—“we praise”—while the soprano lyricism enacts the praise.

The choir Polyphony is admirably well suited to the demands of MacMillan’s challenging scores. Their leanness of tone and pliancy of sound position them to bring a high degree of control to their singing, and while their softness is perhaps most notable, the powerful, free resonance of their loud passages is memorable indeed. This is music-making of a very high order, and MacMillan’s extraordinary vision surely deserves nothing less.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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