I have great hopes for James MacMillan. Ever since his Veni, Veni, Emmanuel sprang on the scene on a Catalyst recording with the wonderful Evelyn Glennie, I have followed his progress closely. Sometimes he hits bona fide on all four cylinders, and other times he simply seems to restate himself without offering any new proof; the music is the same as before. But there is no question that he has talent, sometimes originality (not that that is necessarily a virtue), and an ability to communicate an idea. In many, many cases, those ideas are religious in nature, as the composer is a dedicated Roman Catholic and has spent much time working not only on his professional artistic aspirations, but the practicalities of parish-level musical requirements as well.
His Missa Brevis is one of the pieces that fit the latter category. MacMillan first wrote it as a 17-year old student, and revisited portions of it for this recording. It falls easily on the voices, and makes for a studied practicum in excellent choral liturgy, relying heavily on the Renaissance models that the composer was enthralled with at the time. The Strathclyde Motets, so-named for the church they were written for, are in essence a series of “propers” for the feast to be sung as communion hymns. Since a specific choir was in mind, the music takes advantages of MacMillan’s knowledge of their capabilities. These pieces are more adventurous in nature, and also far more disparate than the movements of his Short Mass. The second one, “In splendoribus sanctorum” (for Christmas Midnight mass, “Amidst the splendors of the heavenly sanctuary”), uses a quasi-ad-lib trumpet solo that displays real genius in its inclusion, and played superbly here. My favorite is perhaps “Sedebit Dominus Rex” (“The Lord will sit on His throne”), which features some delightful soprano filigree, and excellent melodic characteristics that glue the attention. This series of motets is the best thing on the album.
Whether that statement would sit well with MacMillan, whose Tenebrae not only names the album but is the latest entry to his catalog on this disc, I am not sure. The Tenebrae responses were of course done during Holy Week, for three separate days, and taken from a variety of penitential texts, most notably the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. MacMillan eschews that work for some passion gospel texts instead, and though the work is effective, its tonal characteristic and modal wanderings stray far enough from what the ear is used to that I question how effective it would be in a church setting, as most of these pieces from the past tend almost to a drone-like quality meant to bring the hearer to a sufficient degree of penitence, and not be enthralled with the quality of the music. In other words, the less you notice the music during a service like this, the better, and MacMillan’s does not for one moment let you forget it.
From a musical standpoint this is all well and good, and we can enjoy this in our own listening rooms giving it the due attention it deserves outside of the ecclesiastical environment. Alan Tavener has his Cappella Nova singers in top form, bristling with enthusiasm and obvious entrancement with this music, while Linn captures it all very nicely in some splendid and soulful sonic ambiance only enhanced by the Super Audio. MacMillan is back on track with this one, and well worth the attention.
— Steven Ritter