MacMillan: Visitatio Sepulchri & Sun-Dogs

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Macmillan
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Sun-Dogs; Visitatio Sepulchri
PERFORMER: Netherlands Radio Choir & Chamber Philharmonic/Celso Antunes, James MacMillan
CATALOGUE NO: BIS SACD-1719

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We’ve been fortunate, Stephen Johnson and I, in having the chance to wax lyrical about major scores by a composer we love. I certainly agree with every impassioned word Stephen writes in this disc’s booklet about music which generates strong feelings.

The more recent, shorter and purely a cappella work on this disc, Sun-Dogs, struck me as a masterpiece on first hearing. A tour de force of choral writing, in which MacMillan is always assured and in the layered execution of which the Dutch professional choir excels, it sets texts by Michael Symmons Roberts – MacMillan’s long-term collaborator who is also a first-rate poet – with memorable results.

The violent dogs of summer are ecstatically hailed, the beggars’ dogs who come to town provide a virtuoso scherzo worthy of Britten at his best, and the ensuing fusion of canine and religious offerings unleashes just when we least expect it a little whistling song which has been running through my brain all afternoon (in other words, that rare beast the ‘earworm’).

Visitation Sepulchri was originally set as an operatic ritual for soloists in 1992 and recast for chorus. It is tougher to absorb outside the confrontational context of live performance.

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MacMillan favours full orchestration and lashings of percussion in much of his religious writing which can feel overdone, though the slowing pace once the opening blaze of the Te Deum starts to dwindle is compelling. It would be hard to imagine a more fervent performance than this, conducted by the composer. David Nice