Macmillan: O bone Jesu

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Macmillan,Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Macmillan: O bone Jesu; Máiri; Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor; Silence and Music
PERFORMER: Kerstin Steube, Maria van Eldik, Alexander Yudenkov, Achim Jäckel, Alexsandra Lustig, Ulrike Becker, Julius Pfeifer, Bernhard Hartmann; SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Creed
CATALOGUE NO: SACD 93.250 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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James MacMillan’s music is praised, and sometimes criticised, for its visceral emotional directness. The arguments about his music are similar to those that used to rage about Shostakovich in his own lifetime: perform him without the affective punch, some argued, and the weaknesses soon show.

These sober, measured, well shaped but overall rather cool performances aren’t the ones I’d recommend for anyone’s shelves. But hearing them should be enough to make anyone who isn’t terminally prejudiced concede that works like Màiri, and still more the Robert Carver inspired O bone Jesu, sound strong, alluring and original even when sung with a straight face.

The Sixteen’s recent O bone Jesu remains my clear favourite. It has radiance, delicacy and soaring conviction that put the SWR Vocal Ensemble rather in the shade – the effect enhanced by the dull and slightly distant Hänssler sound. 

The detached approach is less favourable to Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor. So many beautiful expressive and imaginative touches pass by as though in a kind of abstracted haze: the hushed opening of the Sanctus is almost startlingly colourless.

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Restraint can be very effective in this music, but this misses the heart by miles. Go to Richard Hickox on Chandos for a persuasively directed, beautifully sung and recorded account of this Mass – glowing intensity without histrionics. Stephen Johnson