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Steve Schwartz, January 2011

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.

Matty J Hifi
Classical Rough and Ready, April 2010

…the opening movement, ‘Father, forgive them…,’ is a masterpiece. Other movements have yet to make as big an impression, but I’m notoriously slow to absorb new things. They occasionally sound derivative of other modern and essentially consonant works, but somehow also seem to have more backbone, more detail, more substance than a lot of it…MacMillan is the real deal.

The MacMillan was a particular surprise…a pleasant one. I’ve already filled my cart with a half dozen other works by him…

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, March 2010

James MacMillan is not only one of the more gifted composers of our time, but is also a devout Roman Catholic. He has written many religious works; his Seven Last Words from the Cross (for chorus and strings) is the major work on a beautifully-performed disc by Graham Ross’ The Dmitry Ensemble (8.570719). The disc also contains Christus Vincit, Nemo te condemnavit and…here in hiding, the last a setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s translation from St. Augustine’s Latin text. MacMillan’s settings are dignified, harmonically diverse and convincing.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, September 2009

An exceptional performance of MacMillan’s masterpiece

Commissioned by the BBC in 1993 and first broadcast on television during Easter week of the following year, Seven Last Words from the Cross is one of James MacMillan’s most enduring achievements, a work to which I have found myself returning more than almost any other in his extensive output. It’s a grippingly intense and enviably concentrated setting for double choir and string orchestra of Jesus’s final utterances combined with texts from other liturgical sources (most notably the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae). Inspiration runs consistently high in this nourishing cantata, not least at the start of the second movement where three times the choir arrestingly cries “Woman, Behold, Thy Son!” (the tension in the silence between the phrases is mesmeric), the third movement’s spell-bindingly beautiful treatment of the Good Friday versicle Ecce lignum Crucis, those jagged string chords which launch the sixth movement (“It is finished”) or, perhaps above all, the achingly expressive Scottish lament that is the orchestral postlude, the string-writing bearing MacMillan’s hallmark “keening” style (Jesus’s dying breaths are quite extraordinarily moving).

This is the work’s third recording—following on from those under the composer himself (Catalyst, 5/95—nla) and Stephen Layton (Hyperion)—and, on balance, the most compelling and inexorable-sounding yet. Graham Ross secures outstandingly fervent and finely disciplined results from the youthful Dmitri Ensemble (of which he is both co-founder and principal conductor), while the remaining three items are just as impressive, especially the radiantly soaring anthem for double choir Christus vincit (written in 1994 for St Paul’s Cathedral, London).

Plaudits must also go to John Rutter, who is credited with the triple role of producer, engineer and editor: technically speaking the disc is little short of a triumph in its combination of truthful sonority and wholly natural perspective. Richly rewarding listening, all of it, and a classy 50th-birthday tribute to MacMillan.

Julie Williams
MusicWeb International, July 2009

This recording is warmly commended by the composer himself and is a sheer pleasure to listen to…Although many of Macmillan’s works are directly related to his devout Catholic faith, Seven Last Words was first shown on BBC television during Holy Week and is perhaps one of his most frequently performed and best known works. It sets texts from all four of the Gospels to build a composite presentation of the last seven sentences uttered by Jesus. It draws musically on Macmillan’s own work Tuireadh-lament, and on Scottish traditional lament music as well as making occasional reference to Bach’s Passion chorales.

This powerful work could be expected to be hard to follow. Adding further accompanying works might seem brave. However, the one thematic step which enables this sequence to work is the decision to adopt the theme of resurrection. Christus Vincit is a setting of the twelfth century Worcester Acclamations. Its plainsong-like phrases are punctuated by silence.

Nemo te condemnavit, which follows, is the most recent work on the disc. It is contented, reassuring and positive and is in a capella style…Taking the theme of forgiveness as expressed in the parable of the woman caught in adultery, it is one of a series of new works for post-communion reflection.

The final work is another motet, …here in hiding…It incorporates the Gregorian hymn Adoro te devote but intercuts the original Latin of St Thomas Aquinas with an English translation by the poet-monk Gerard Manley Hopkins. It has been recorded previously by the Hilliard Ensemble in a version for four solo voices. The present edition is the world premiere recording of the version for ATTB chorus a capella.

Seven Last Words has previously been recorded on Hyperion by Polyphony under Stephen Layton. It received superlative reviews and was a Recording of the Year in 2005. The Naxos disc is a budget version by a newer ensemble. The Hyperion, although more generous in its pairing, is perhaps less satisfactory in its programming. Serious enthusiasts will want both. Those who choose the cheaper Naxos recording will be getting a very enjoyable disc and one which compares very favourably with its Hyperion cousin.

Notwithstanding its inexpensive price, recording, production, singing and playing are excellent. The disc is attractively presented with informative notes by the composer, full lyrics and a cover featuring a painting on the same theme by Graham Sutherland.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, June 2009

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!

Stephen Eddins, April 2009

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, The first movement of Seven Last Words from the Cross, for chorus and string orchestra, is overwhelming, using overlapping and conflicting layers of various texts, tonalities, vocal techniques textures, and languages to depict the wrenching physical and emotional chaos of the crucifixion. The second movement, Woman, Behold, Thy Son!, in contrast, is a largely straightforward choral setting, which, heard on its own, would be impressive, but its conventionality and lack of probing insight make it come across as a letdown after the staggering first movement. The majority of the movements, fortunately, have the musical and emotional depth and complexity of the opening, giving the work as a whole the power, intensity, inventiveness, and originality that make MacMillan such an outstanding composer when he’s at his best. The CD includes three attractive but fiendishly difficult a cappella choral works, performed with confidence and energy by the Dmitri Ensemble, led by Graham Ross. Naxos’ sound is clear and vibrant.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is one of the most intense and compelling sacred choral works from the second half of the 20th century. Born in Scotland fifty years ago, he attended Edinburgh University where his gifts as a composer led him to study with John Caskin at Durham University, in the north of England. Much of his early output featured for chamber groups and solo instruments, but it was a work for solo percussion and orchestra, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and the large-scale orchestral score,The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, that brought him initial international recognition. Today his portfolio also includes operas, ballet, music theatre, and choral works. At times his gestures can be theatrical and dramatic, the sudden outburst at the opening of the second movement, after the quiet beginning, being a startling moment in the Seven Last Words. Often cruelly descriptive with the hammer blows that open the fifth section recalling the nails pounded into Christ’s feet and hands as he was fixed to the cross. The finale opens with the beseeching words Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit, a quiet and poignant moment.Scored for chorus and orchestra, and completed in 1993, the text is derived from all four biblical gospels and relates the last seven sentences uttered by Christ. It uses various vocal permutations from solo to complete chorus, here sung by the amazingly gifted Dmitry Ensemble, a group formed in 2004 and links voices with string instruments. The disc is completed by the 1994 anthem, Christus Vincit, and world premiere recordings of a short Communion motet, Nemo te condemnavit, and the extended motet on a text of St. Thomas Aquinas…here in hiding…, a score of that mixes power with moments of hushed beauty. I find the disc deeply moving, stunningly performed and very well recorded. A perfect 50th birthday gift to the composer.  

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