MACMILLAN: O (2008). Tryst (1989). Magnificat (1999). Nunc dimittis (2001). Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic & Choir/James Macmillan.
Challenge Classics CC72554 TT: 56:10.

How many times can you write the word "beautiful?" For a long time, writers classified James MacMillan as a "Holy Minimalist," like Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki, in that the music runs slow, with not a lot of notes, and usually has a religious inspiration. However, MacMillan, though he often does take a religious turn, has long outgrown such a confine. One can point to very "maximal" works indeed, some of them on this disc.

The composer sees O as a piece of practical liturgical music. The choral textures are simpler than in, say, Cantos Sagrados, but in my experience, it takes a bit of doing to get strings and a trumpet up to the score, let alone most church choirs. This score shares many qualities with others by MacMillan: slow tempo and emotional intensity. MacMillan sets an Advent antiphon "O oriens" (O radiant dawn) in English. The score has three large sections: a chorale for the choir (trebles only), a trumpet solo with the trebles in the background as an instrumental color on the word "O," and a return to the chorale. MacMillan risks a lot, in that he doesn't use a lot of notes and much of the piece is chords. He hasn't given himself much cover. But what notes! What chords! They convey the anxious waiting of believers for Christ to return. The piece ends with a plea ("Come!") and amens (so be it), both repeated a few times. To resolutely non-spiritual me, this work expresses the austere rock of faith.

Inspired by a poem in broad Scots dialect by 20th-century Scottish poet William Soutar and dedicated to the memory of the composer's grandmother, Tryst, one of the composer's greatest scores, comes across as death-haunted, even if you knew neither the poem nor the dedication. More accurately, one might think of it as MacMillan's reactions to death. The music -- some of his finest -- mainly rages and keens, with small but significant respites. It begins with a stew of sharp, nervous figures which become mired in groans (thick woodwind scoring), interrupted by angry strings. The strings take over for a while, until they too seem to slog their way. At this point, the roles of the strings and winds switch. This leads to a long chorale-like section for strings -- the most consonant music so far -- although it seems to be in two keys, with the upper strings vs. the lower. This leads to a rhapsodic lament for the strings. Gradually, the rest of the orchestra steals in. A remarkable duet for solo trumpets merges into a toccata of Ginasterian energy. We hear the bleats of clarinet and then strings. Another chorale, this time serene, comes to the fore and persists despite intrusions of the toccata material. The score ends ambiguously, in a fragile, though serene, space. I don't claim to know MacMillan's "deep program" in detail, but he has provided enough clues to reveal at least a general direction.

I always compare settings of the Magnificat to Bach's, my favorite, in regard not to quality, but to composers' differing response to the text, Mary's answer to Gabriel's Annunciation. Bach sees the joy, mystery, and glory. The joy comes out in the quick melismas (several notes grouped to a single syllable), most notably in the opening but throughout the work. MacMillan, no surprise, reacts differently and sets the English text. Again, the writing is pretty pared-down -- though not Minimalist -- with the vocal lines largely homophonic (all the voices moving in rhythmic lockstep) and no melisma until quite late in the score. Most of the music expresses the focused strength it takes to understand a mystery. At the line "He has filled the hungry with good things," the vocal lines begin to shake (melisma), which snap your head toward greater concentration, since melisma hasn't appeared until now. From then on, the music assumes a different character, almost barbaric, awe-full, as if an angel in full winged regalia and shine showed up at your front door. At the Doxology ("Glory be to the Father," etc.), the music even hints at terror in the presence of the Divine, so frightening that one can't look on it directly without becoming a pillar of salt. However, the music quickly trims down to a core of rapt devotion and ends there.

Normally, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis pair together liturgically (I don't know why). MacMillan wrote his Nunc dimittis a year after his Magnificat and for a different commissioner. Again, MacMillan sets the prayer in English ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart"). He begins and ends on a low E for the choral basses. Gradually, other voices enter in a texture and the concentrated emotional neighborhood we have encountered before in O and the Magnificat. Then what MacMillan well describes as "chirping" enters in the orchestra, and the music takes on a new textural complexity from then almost to the end. In the liner notes, Ivan Moody asserts that the composer has varied material from the Magnificat. I sort of hear it but would need scores to talk about it in more detail. I definitely hear the reappearance of the Magnificat amens in the Nunc dimittis. The Doxology, more recognizably celestial and grand than in the Magnificat, again thins out to a simple core, ending with the basses on low E.

I can't praise the performances highly enough, even though I can't always understand the choir's words. MacMillan can fall pretty flat in a lax performance. The sparser textures and slower tempi demand greater effort on the part of the performers. The emotions burn hotter in these accounts than in some others. MacMillan certainly knows how he wants his music to go, and the performers give him even more than he probably has asked for. A superior recording.

S.G.S. (November 2014)