JAMES MACMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross; Christus Vincit; Nemo te condemnavit; …here in hiding – The Dmitri Ensemble/ Graham Ross, conductor – Naxos 8.570719, 70:37 *****:
The Seven Last Words from the Cross has had a long and ancient tradition in the confines of the western church. James MacMillan, one of my favorite contemporary composers, has written a setting of these seven “last” sentences or utterances of Christ compiled from all four gospel accounts, and though the forces call for choir and strings, he is always particularly concerned with the liturgical aspects of the music even when it is not being used in a church. MacMillan knows that this particular setting evokes great emotion from believers, and seems anxious to propagate that emotion whether in a church or the confines of a concert hall.
The piece, written in 1994, is one of his very best; the beautifully sculpted choral lines play to the future while hearkening to the past in it’s mimicking of the great composers of ancient times whose settings graced the high cathedrals of Europe. Yet MacMillan, in using the strings to somehow take up the emotional provenance where the words may fail, ups the ante emotionally to a considerable degree, and makes the direct appeal to the senses a uniquely modern experience. He also, aside from the canonical texts alone, adds his own interpolations to the work, the Good Friday responses.
This piece has had three recordings now, including the composer’s own first one in 1995, and Hyperion’s Polyphony issue with Stephen Layton at the helm – also available as a SACD. This one cannot boast the surround audio qualities of the Hyperion, but I can report first hand that the performances are every bit as good, and at less than half the price. Considering the many excellences of the included shorter works, this wonderful album by the newly formed Dmitri Ensemble—celebrating the composer’s 50th birthday—may easily turn out to be the preferred medium for buyers to acquaint themselves with this seminal, and fabulous, piece of music. Don’t end the year without making its acquaintance!
— Steven Ritter