ALBUM TITLE: Seven Last Words from the Cross
WORKS: Seven Last Words from the Cross; Te Deum; On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin
PERFORMER: Polyphony; Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton; James Vivian (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67460
If you’re intrigued by James MacMillan’s reputation, but don’t know where to start with his music, this disc could be the answer. Seven Last Words from the Cross has (if you’ll pardon the pun) a crucial position in MacMillan’s large output. Unlike some of his contemporary ‘Holy Minimalists’, who try to present a transcendent alternative to the evil and pain of this world, MacMillan focuses on the suffering of Christ – God in human form, humiliated, tortured and crying out in his last moments. The music MacMillan chooses as setting for these seven ‘words’ is some of his darkest and most intense, yet it is also remarkably lucid and easy to follow. At the heart is ‘I thirst’, music of awe-inspiring agonized simplicity. But even though the ending offers no consolation, Seven Last Words is neither maudlin nor starkly negative. This splendid new performance from Polyphony also conveys dignity, and a sense (hard to explain) that the suffering is, in some mysterious way, redemptive. Easier to quantify, the singing is also remarkably secure technically, the ensemble near perfect. Beautiful, powerful playing too from the Britten Sinfonia.
On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin is gentler, but subtly poetic, hen the distinctly Anglican Te Deum shows MacMillan identifying successfully with another kind of religious tradition, as well as demonstrating Polyphony’s wide expressive range. Excellent recordings too. Stephen Johnson