Review by georgeflanagin September 14, 2006 (9 of 9 found this review helpful)
|ADHD Summary: If you are interested in, or interested in trying, a disc of  20th century music,  choral music, or  James MacMillan's work, this is a disc to get. Find it. Buy it. Play the pits off it. Enjoy it. But, take an antacid before reading the liner notes.
A little bit about MacMillan.
This disc was my sixth of music by James MacMillan, whom I believe to be alive, well, and working somewhere in the UK. At least I hope so. For those not familiar with MacMillan, his compositional style is a rough mix (not an amalgam) of traditional and non-functional harmony, all done with conventional instruments and voices. His forms are immediately recognized: concerti, chamber, and in this case choral works intended for liturgical purposes and public performance.
His music has a good bit of 20th century edge to it, and he frequently migrates all around a tonal center. This is not to say it is "atonal;" it is not. This is not Schoenberg or Webern. This is tonal music with a wide ranging concept of consonance and dissonance.
Seven Last Words
This work runs 46 minutes, and consists, as you might imagine, of seven roughly equal "chunks." From what I have read, the individual pieces are intended to be performable and enjoyable in isolation, a bit like the pieces from Albeniz's /Iberia/. For the listeners just dabbling in this period in music, such an approach might be a good place to start. (See my recommendations in the section about the recording and performance.)
The seven pieces cover the expression of different emotions, and the correspondingly different orchestral and choral techniques. I don't know how many people have noticed it, but big choral works frequently leave the wrap up, in this case the "eighth" word, to the orchestra. Two prominent examples are Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and Mahler's Resurrection. SLW follows the tradition, and the orchestral unwinding that follows "Father, Into thy hands I commend my spirit," leaves you feeling crucified, dead, and unsure what will happen to you next. In other words, the net effect is emotional exhaustion.
The two shorter pieces
The "On the annunciation ..." is a tidy, more comfortable piece of music than its predecessor, but then the subject matter is generally regarded as a happy occasion; without it, Christians would have no religion at all. The piece of music runs 6:41, and I suggest that it will start to make regular appearances in Christmas liturgy in the near future.
The "Te Deum" has the distinction of being a 21st century piece, written in 2001 and first performed in 2002. It is in English, taken directly from the Book of Common Prayer, and that also makes it interesting to those of us whose Latin has atrophied or never really been any good.
Liner Note Whinge
What? The liner notes? They are informative, and Paul Spicer (http://www.paulspicer.com/) knows much much more about the subject matter than do I. I mention them here only because they are so saccharine that ... well ... Let me give a couple of annoying examples:
"The final sighs of the violins are like the final breaths of the dying Christ and bring to a close a masterpiece of our time." OK, let me explain what is wrong with this: First, what is said here is hardly something likely to be lost on the listener or in need of explanation. Second, to read these words, I have already purchased the CD. I am glad that Mr. Spicer and I share a point of view that this is good music, but let's not continue to work on the sale after it has been made.
"Here, ..., he has the perfect vehicle through which to allow his imagination full rein." Mr. Spicer certainly throws in a number of value judgments designed to convey to me that James MacMillan is a cool guy, a bright guy, a great composer, maybe a personal friend of Mr. Spicer? The thing is, I don't care what Mr. Spicer thinks of MacMillan, I just want to get a leg up on understanding the story behind the music.
The recording & the performance
This recording is so stunningly clear that there is really no need for Hyperion to have printed the words in the liner booklet. Of course, /Polyphony/ and the Britten Sinfonia deserve credit for giving the engineers and their equipment something to work with. My hunch is that this recording is about as good as vocal recordings are likely to get. If you want to demonstrate the rather subtle issue of "midrange clarity," then this source material is good enough for any purpose I can imagine.
Being a photographer, I think there is a parallel between this type of absolute clarity and a really sharp lens. I have a portrait lens that makes it seem like you are truly looking through nothing, and with this recording I felt like the contribution of my equipment was as it should be: "none." The sound just pops into the room ex nihilo.
Some particularly nice passages are to be found here:
- The entire 6:46 of "It is finished," which is cut six.
- About a minute into cut three, when the solo violin appears with its "aria" along with subtle orchestral textures.
- About three minutes into the same piece when the interaction between the violin, the remainder of the orchestra, and the choir creates some a texture that seems to me to be both complex and serene.
A suggestion about listening
Program your player to either put pieces in reverse order, or just program it to play the Seven Last Words only, if that is the piece that interests you. I found the happiness of the Annunciation piece to be in too stark contrast to the Seven Last Words, particularly being that MacMillan has left the listener in the tragedy of the experience.
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