Reviewed by John Irvine
James MacMillan should be familiar to regular Cross Rhythms readers from these review pages and from the article in CR19. That article noted that the next MacMillan works to be recorded and commercially released would be two of his "music-theatre" pieces. Finally the day has dawned. As always with reviewing first recordings of new music by living composers, there is an almost inevitable personal bias involved - the views, likes and dislikes of the reviewer. I mention this only because, for various reasons, I was somewhat disappointed with this recording. Perhaps it was the long waiting period and my expectations were too high... I shall put aside personal considerations and plough on in a spirit of professionalism... "Busqueda" (1988) is a setting of the Latin Mass and poems by the Argentinian Mothers Of The Disappeared, grieving mothers of ordinary men and women who were held by the Security forces of the Junta and who never returned. It is impossible to remain unmoved during this harrowing, heart-wrenching music. The raw emotion and passionate grief of the poems, movingly recited by actress Juliet Stevenson over a turbulent musical background is almost overwhelming. This is undoubtedly MacMillan's finest hour, and the performance conducted by MacMillan himself is a fervently passionate affair, giving full justice to both the words and the music. It is the approach taken in the actual recording that raises some questions. The most charitable reading I can give is that the recording sounds similar to what one would hear in a live performance: the brass and percussion are deafening (please warn your neighbours before playing this disc); the singers and actors almost impossible to make out by comparison. The point is, of course, that had I wanted something that sounded like a live performance I would have gone to the concert hall. In the comfort of my own home I would rather be able to make out all of the performers at a reasonable noise level! Now on to the other work, "Visitatio Selpulchi" (1993). The jury are still out on this one as an actual piece of music. It was originally a staged piece, a 20th century update of the medieval liturgical drama of the same name. Critics felt at the time that there was too little substance and too much showiness in the piece, with MacMillan taking an unwarranted opportunity to ram his Catholic beliefs down the collective throat of his audience. MacMillan was unrepentant: '"Visitatio Supulchri' is a statement of faith on my part, my way of prayer." From an explosive and dramatic instrumental opening - and it's worth getting the disc just for this bit, to experience MacMillan's command of a full blown orchestra - we enter a slow moving central section where again and again the angels slowly repeat their question: "Whom do you seek?" With each repetition MacMillan draws us deeper and deeper into the majesty and mystery of the resurrection morning. Lurking beneath the essentially slow and passive music is a great dramatic power which MacMillan allows to surface only briefly until the angels have confirmed that "He is not here; he has risen." It is the third section, a setting of the "Latin Te Deum", that is the unfortunate conclusion to the piece. This section is on the one hand an unbelievable piece of writing, quite breathtaking in its audacious use of many styles, densely and deftly woven together to create a quite unique tapestry of sound. On the other hand it's loud, noisy and quite unlistenable. The ending peters out to almost nothing after ripping off every opera composer from Wagner to Nyman. One is left with a distinct impression that MacMillan nearly managed to bring off something quite spectacular. As I said: nearly. A flawed masterpiece, but worthy of serious investigation.
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