MACMILLAN: O (2008). Tryst (1989). Magnificat (1999). Nunc
dimittis (2001). Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic & Choir/James
Challenge Classics CC72554 TT: 56:10.
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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
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.
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
It begins with a stew of sharp, nervous figures which become mired in
groans (thick woodwind scoring), interrupted by angry strings. The strings
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
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.
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
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
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
lines largely homophonic (all the voices moving in rhythmic lockstep)
and no melisma until quite late in the score. Most of the music expresses
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
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
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
S.G.S. (November 2014)