MACMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross. Christus Vincit. Nemo te condemnavit. … here in hiding …
The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross.
Naxos 8.570719 TT: 70:37

Standing outside. James MacMillan exemplifies an odd man out among contemporary serious artists, in that he practices Christianity (Roman Catholic branch) when the default mode is primarily agnostic and beyond. God doesn't show up much -- except through absence -- in contemporary literature. The problem most poets seem to tackle is what to do without a God. MacMillan has claimed that this prevailing attitude has hindered his reception among a-religious critics, but I seriously doubt it. I had problems with at least some of his work that had nothing to do with the message. I tend to grant a poet (or a composer) his subject matter. What he makes of it interests me more. However, I will grant that misconceptions about MacMillan's music have risen at least in part because it expresses his faith. In the past, at least, critics have lumped him in with the so-called "holy minimalists" like Gorécki and Pärt, and I think this unfair. Granted that much of MacMillan (particularly his explicitly religious scores) works by repetition rather than classical development, nevertheless a lot more goes on in a MacMillan piece than in a work by either of the other two.

I'm not a religious person by nature or training, but it has always seemed to me that much of the new atheism -- and in its type, it's probably less than 200 years old -- sets up straw men by not engaging with serious religious thought and thus misses the point of religion. I guess all this says that you have to acknowledge the genuine when you find it in both religion and art, and MacMillan's the real musical deal. The religious person aims for two things: a fuller immersion in "reality" and the transcendence of it. Real life is chaotic, absurd, and often full of suffering. The Book of Job tells us more about our lives than many of us care to know. Transcendence, on the other hand, has long been recognized as a yield from music, for good or, as in Plato, ill. It doesn't seem in the least odd to me that so many composers, even atheists and agnostics, are attracted to sacred music, beyond the spur of a commission. MacMillan in particular aims for transcendence in his religious work. He wants to "touch the mystery," even if he doesn't understand it.

I had heard a performance of MacMillan's Seven Last Words led by the composer, and, frankly, it bored me. I thought it bloodless. Because it came with a searing account of MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados (on Catalyst 68125, reissued by ArkivMusic), also conducted by the composer, it never occurred to me that it could have been the account, rather than the piece. The performance by Graham Ross shows me my mistake. The work bristles with traps and thorns. It's slow, it uses repetition, and the contrasts are mostly subtle. Ross and the Dmitri Ensemble transform what had seemed like bland piety into an intensity that burns. What seemed a major mistake now strikes me as a highpoint of MacMillan's catalogue. Indeed, intensity is a major feature of all the works here.

Christus Vincit ("Christ has conquered") is simply one of the most sheerly beautiful choral works in the literature. If any piece of music defines transcendence, it's this one. Again, I'm no Christian, so I haven't any non-musical ax to grind here. The same rapturous loveliness also imbues Nemo te condemnavit ("Has no one has condemned you, woman?").

here in hiding … is, for me, the most complicated work on the program. Indeed, I can't really follow it. It takes a Latin Eucharistic hymn by Thomas Aquinas and its wonderful English translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Lines from both interpenetrate, and MacMillan doesn't necessarily set the texts in order, or even all the texts. It was very difficult to make out exactly what goes on, and I, for one, failed. I definitely need a score. This was the one work on the program that I couldn't connect with. With a bit of study on my part, it might reach me yet. I love the text, particularly when Thomas Aquinas compares himself to the apostle "Doubting" Thomas.

MacMillan has expressed his gratitude to the performers, and he should. These are good almost to the point of incredulity, with the choral work especially spot on as far as intonation, diction, rhythm, and tonal beauty are concerned. … here in hiding … is muddy, but that's almost embedded like rocks into the score. Considering my initial experience with Seven Last Words, I won't say that nobody could bring off … here in hiding …, but in this case, a group with major choral chops could not. I had never heard of The Dmitri Ensemble or Graham Ross before this recording. As far as I'm concerned, they belong on anybody's A-list of contemporary groups. And you get all this on a budget label, yet.

S.G.S. (January 2011)