Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
Your ever-alert reviewer missed this one when it was released in 2004. In fairness, James MacMillan is a prolific composer so trying to catch everything he does is a challenge - although a very worthwhile one as since the passing of Sir John Tavener in 2013 one can make a good case for Sir James being the leading living British composer. In this choral collection, most ably performed by Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers, MacMillan characteristically draws inspiration from recurring themes such as his Catholic faith and Scottish traditional culture. The title piece is "Cantos Sagrados" ("Sacred Songs"). MacMillan takes his texts from Latin American poets and combines their settings of political repression with traditional religious texts to create a powerful combination of liberation theology. The result is at times delicate, and then terrifying. The composer's intentions were to create a work both sacred and secular, being timeless yet contemporary. From the opening, where the two choruses are almost literally screaming at each other in an exchange which we imagine is taking place amidst noise and chaos, to the final whispered plea for forgiveness, "Cantos Sagrados" moves seamlessly from spine-tingling awe and wonder to jaw-dropping terror and anguish. The opening and closing movements use poems of Ariel Dorfman referring to events of political repression in Latin America, and the middle one is a prayer by Ana Maria Mendoza to the Virgin of Guadalupe in which she asks why the Catholic priests burn the homes of the indigenous Indians with people still inside them. This latter one is sung by the women's voices while the lower voices intone below them, "Save us, Mother, Gate of Heaven," and in the third movement, one chorus describes the execution of a political prisoner by firing squad while the other one sings, "He was crucified for our sake." This is strong stuff indeed and by no means an easy listen but through his music MacMillan is making us listen to words that may have otherwise passed us by and while I am sorry to have missed it on release, I am very glad to have heard it. Of the other works on this disc, the majority are settings of Latin or English religious texts often written for particular occasions or places. "A Child's Prayer", for instance, was dedicated to the victims of the Dunblane tragedy of 1996, where one teacher and 16 of her pupils were shot dead whilst in class. "Christus Vixcit" from 1994 is possibly MacMillan's best-known choral work to date. One of the two secular works on this recording, "The Gallant Weaver" is a setting of that most Scottish of poets, Robert Burns, to a nostalgic evocation of Celtic folk-music. While everything in this collection is worth hearing and should appeal to other choirs looking to extend their repertoire, it is the mini cantata "Cantos Sagrados" that will live long in the memory although the memorable impact would not be the same without some very assured singing so we happily divide our applause between composer and choir.
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