WORKS: The Birds of Rhiannon; Magnificat; Nunc dimittis; Exsultet; Màiri; The Gallant Weaver
PERFORMER: BBC Singers, BBC Philharmonic/James MacMillan; Jonathan Scott (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9997
Admirers of James MacMillan can now revisit his concerto-for-orchestra-with-chorus-mysticus The Birds of Rhiannon, in a fizzing premiere recording by its debut artists from the 2001 Proms. Released from the sonic fetters of the Royal Albert Hall, and lovingly polished by the Chandos engineers, the sound is less noisy, more focused than it seemed before; and though, programmatically, the successive episodes appear no less over-determined, their potential as sources of pleasure per se is more striking for their greater aural acuity.
Time will tell whether this work will enjoy success similar to previous MacMillan triumphs. As for two a cappella works, the complex and ambitious Màiri and the simpler, folk-like The Gallant Weaver, they are unlikely to gain wide popular currency, despite readings of passionate advocacy by the BBC Singers, so it’s good to have them here.
Which leaves the symphonic fanfare Exsultet and a set of choral-orchestral evening canticles, all more than serviceable stuff for great occasions. In the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the restrained yet intense accompaniment offers a penetrating emotional gloss on the simple and uncluttered word-setting, courageously exorcising in terms of both musical language and sensibility the ghost of Herbert Howells, spectre of so many Anglican servants of these texts. Nicholas Williams