Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
on 24 January 2008
This CD is marked by total commitment. The total commitment of the Composer James Macmillan, whose music remains approachable while never being a compromise. The total commitment of the choir and organist of Westminster Cathedral, whose performance is faultless. The total commitment of the recording engineers and producer , who display just the right touch: a firm but sensitive one combining immediacy and power.
The musical language James Macmillan uses for church commissions is less complex than that he uses for the concert hall, but it is no less ambitious. In the last few years he has voiced his convictions regarding church music, and so it is interesting to go back to these earlier works and find those convictions already underpinning them. In the last few years he has changed his appearance: out with the close cropped hairstyle of the sharp young artist - in with the shoulder length hair, well trimmed beard, and yes black clothes of the trendy rock priest. And what is the message the new look Macmillan has delivered? Get that rock music out of church and return to the sources of western church music such as plainchant for inspiration! I have some sympathy for his point of view. There is nothing worse than badly played music in church, but that is not a musical style issue. Certainly the composer himself makes a case for the kind of music he advocates, but how many composers of church music have the necessary gifts to bring something new out of traditional sources as he does? And how many churches have choirs who can sing this music and congregations that will join in?
It is time to let the music make its case. What is it like? This music has a grounding in the cadences of plainsong, Scottish folk singing is never far away, neither is the classic British Choral tradition, to that is added a fleshy fullness that is more Continental European in origin. This music is not ethereal, it is not the sound of the spirit finding release from the body. It is the opposite, the sound of the Spirit rejoicing in the possibilities of the body, of sounds born on lips, powered by air from lungs. This is not music to take us out of ourselves, but music which revels in the glory of what it is to be human. Having earthed ourselves in ourselves, it then reaches outwards.
This attitude extends to his use of the organ. Macmillan revels in its physical characteristics. From base drones that set foundations throbbing, to upper registry lines that spy out the highest recesses in the vaulting. Macmillan uses it as a multi octave sonar device that searches out the contours of the cathedral it inhabits and reveals its shape in sound. Indeed Macmillan creates his own Wall Of Sound, as appropriate to church worship as Phil Spectre's was to 60's pop music. It may only be made of reverberating air, but is feels as solid as the granite of the Grampian mountains.
Considering some of the works on the CD. -
`A New Song' `O sing unto the Lord a new song....' (Psalm 96) is based around the simple but telling concept of starting again - anew - several times during the four and a half minute length of the work.
The Mass is a considerable concept. It joins the worship of Priest and People by bringing together their parts in the Eucharistic Prayer. It joins a traditional intoning of the Eucharistic prayer by the Priest with rich melodies and harmonies by the choir, representing the people, that soar upwards and outwards. The lifelike quality of the sound recording deserves a mention here, as when the sanctuary bell is rung I almost jumped out of my seat. It sounded as if I was in church in the middle of a Mass, not listening at home.
The organ solo `Gaudeamus in loci pace' was written for Phuscarden Abbey and mixes two sounds to be heard there. The base pedals lay down a plainchant melody from the monk's worship, while the small pipes chirp with the birdsong around the Abbey. The piece works both as a kind of ambient music interaction between these two sounds, as if someone were next to a window in the abbey hearing both sounds; and as a celebration of the breath of octaves and sound qualities that the organ can span.
Perhaps the most telling work is `A Child's Prayer' dedicated to those who died in the Dunblane massacre of march 1996. First performed the next July it affirms the whole range of human feeling still raw in many people's lives a year after the tragedy, and find's joy, not like light through clouds suddenly dispelling darkness, but as a deep transforming force that will gradually restore the grieving.
Macmillan makes his case, aided by the performers and sound engineers. But with this proviso: this music is born of total commitment and requires total commitment to do it justice on disc. Everyone involved has delivered. Could your typical church service down the road ever be like this? Probably not. But for 66 minutes here a vision of what church music could be like is opened up. Music of a quality that reaches out beyond the confines of church into the wider world, because, together with all it's other qualities, it has great humanity.
Who will this Disc appeal to from the point of view of musical style? If you like Classic 20th Century British Choral music it should, or if you like 16th/17th Century British Choral Music, or the European choral tradition. Fans of the likes of Arvo Part and John Tavener should also enjoy this, even if this does stretch them a bit more than their favourite composers.