Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
This is an excellent introduction to the choral compositions of Sir James MacMillan, covering as it does selections from both his sacred and secular output. While I am happy to recommend this as an introduction for listeners who have yet to make the musical acquaintance of the leading Scottish composer of his generation (he was born in 1959) I am sure there will be plenty to interest those already familiar with his works. Add some outstanding singing from London's Elysian Singers under director Sam Laughton with atmospheric contributions from violist Alexandra Caldon and there is much to recommend. We open with four Psalms, starting with a choral fanfare, "Blow The Trumpet In The New Moon" from 2016. This is a setting of some lines from Psalm 81 evoking musical instruments and certainly grabs our attention and showcases the singing abilities of the choir. "Children Are A Heritage Of The Lord" (2011) comes from Psalm 127 and musically is a complete contrast to the rousing opener, being much more meditational. The third Psalm setting is probably the composer's best known one, "Misère" from 2009, a monumental setting of the Latin translation of Psalm 51, often used on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent. This was first performed by The Sixteen and the fact that The Elysian Singers are in no way outclassed shows how well they sing. The final Psalm is "Domine Non Secundum Peccata Nostra" ("O Lord, repay us not according to the sins we have committed") from Psalms 103 and 79. This was composed in 2010 for St John's Cambridge and is also associated with Ash Wednesday. The contribution of Alexandra Caldron's violin adds immensely to the power of the music. The four Psalms give us half an hour of exquisite choral music and the remaining tracks could be considered as a bonus which is to severely undersell them. The three poems are settings of "One Equal Music", a poetic paraphrase by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963) from a sermon by John Donne (1572-1631); "To My Successor" by George Herbert (1593-1633) with the music being composed for the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003; and the haunting "When You See The Millions Of The Mouthless Dead" by the Scottish War Poet Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915: he was killed in the Battle of Loos). Next we hear two pieces inspired by Scottish folk tunes, "Lassie, Wad Ye Loe Me?" from 2010 and "Domus Infelix Est" from 2013, before concluding with two beautiful prayers in "Ave Maris Stella" ("Hail, O Star Of The Ocean") and "Cecilia Virgo", a prayer to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, both of which remind us that MacMillan is working from within the Catholic tradition. Whatever your church affiliation this is music to gladden the heart and secular choirs may well find music to challenge them too.
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