MACMILLAN: Seven Last Words from the Cross

In the next generation, the Scottish composer James MacMillan has emerged as a strong heir to this tradition, and in the present recording his ìSeven last Words from the Cross,î ìOn the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin,î and ìTe Deumî are striking examples of the ways in which this is so.
ìThe Seven Last Wordsî is a large-scale work, commissioned by the BBC in 1994. Its overall power and control of scale may remind one of P‰rtís Passio, but where P‰rt is intensely minimalistic, MacMillan employs strong contrasts and juxtapositon to address the drama of the Crucifixion. Often haunting, the score takes one into the reflective inner depths that surround the words of Jesus on the cross, while at the same time immersing one in the dramatic progression of events on Golgotha. The dynamic interplay of dramatic progression and inner reflection is, of course, familiar from works like the Bach Passions, but there it is a textual division of dutyóalternating prose narrative and poetic reflectionóthat elicits and brings order to the interplay; MacMillanís texts, on the other hand, are the scriptural words from the cross with various liturgical texts from Holy Week (mostly Good Friday), and their weave is generally a smooth one: the interplay is unitive and organicónot bi-modal. Chant-like formulas, voluminous climaxes, medieval evocations of early counterpoint, English pastoral string writing, angular aggressionóall of these are employed by MacMillan in a way that animates both the drama and the reflection in a powerfully integrated composition, with voice and orchestra sharing equal portions of the expressive burden.
I was struck by this same sense of integration in the setting of the Te Deum, as well. The opening (ìWe praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord . . .î) juxtaposes slow-moving, low, male chordal declamationsóreminiscent of Russian liturgical musicówith a rhapsodic soprano line. The chordal texture seems to describe and narrateóìwe praiseîówhile the soprano lyricism enacts the praise.
The choir Polyphony is admirably well suited to the demands of MacMillanís challenging scores. Their leanness of tone and pliancy of sound position them to bring a high degree of control to their singing, and while their softness is perhaps most notable, the powerful, free resonance of their loud passages is memorable indeed. This is music-making of a very high order, and MacMillanís extraordinary vision surely deserves nothing less.
Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
product_title=James MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross
product_by=Polyphony; the Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton (cond.)
product_id=Hyperion CDA67460 [CD]