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MacMillan and His British Contemporaries


Release Date: 10/10/2006 
Label:  Avie   Catalog #: 2085   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  James MacMillanRyan WigglesworthJonathan DoveRobin Holloway,   ... 
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 4 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Recently I gave a warm welcome to the first volume in what I believe is to be a three-disc series. This second volume is even more welcome since not only does it maintain the very high artistic standards of its predecessor but also the repertoire net is cast more widely. Whereas the previous disc featured the music of Francis Poulenc and just two other twentieth century French composers here works by ten other composers are included besides compositions by James MacMillan.

There are two works by MacMillan. One of these, On The Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin, I had heard before. Indeed, only last year I reviewed its first-ever recording as part of a marvellous MacMillan disc by Stephen Layton and Polyphony review.
Read more Polyphony, of course, is an adult choir whereas New College employ boy trebles. I can say without hesitation that the New College account need fear no comparison with Polyphony’s recording. It’s very fine indeed and some listeners may prefer the additional edge that trebles bring to the music as compared with sopranos. The piece itself is quite superb. I love the way MacMillan’s use of high registers both in the choral parts and in the organ accompaniment emphasises the mystery of the event. As Samuel Hogarth writes in his notes, what MacMillan presents here is a "snapshot of the Annunciation scene, strongly evoking the sense of wonderment." Well said! Hogarth rightly draws attention to the "clear texture" of the piece, which is splendidly realised here. No less fine than the singing is the playing of the crucial organ part. Whichever of the organists is playing on this track – this isn’t specified in the documentation – achieves an arresting sound before the climax at the words "Allelujah, we adore". Then the joyful, dancing organ part at the very end sounds just like a bagpipe, which surely this proudly Scottish composer intended, but in the chosen registration there’s also a very apt whiff of contemporary French organ music at this point, I find.

The other MacMillan piece, Christus Vincit, is one I’ve not heard before. MacMillan never does the obvious. The short text of this piece is triumphant, even triumphalist in tone, yet at the start the music is surprisingly calm and restrained. Eventually the volume grows but overall this strikes me as a calm and serene meditation on and celebration of the power of Christ. It’s music that makes its effect through concentration and cumulative growth. Particularly noteworthy is the stratospheric solo treble part, thrillingly sung by Sasha Ockenden.

The only other composer who has two pieces in the programme is Jonathan Dove. I admired both. Ecce Beatam Lucem sets a Latin text by the sixteenth-century Italian, Alessandro Striggio. As befits the subject matter the music is fittingly luminous. As for Into Thy Hands, in my listening notes I’ve written "beautiful prayerful setting" and I think that says it all.

There’s a good deal of music on this disc to which the adjective "beautiful" might fairly be applied. Among these are Robin Holloway’s dignified setting of words by Robert Bridges, Since I Believe, and also Salve Regina by Gabriel Jackson, which provides a lovely, pacific, ending to the programme.

Julian Anderson’s O Sing Unto The Lord makes a marvellous start to the recital. This piece features arresting yet accessible choral textures. I would imagine that, like most of the other pieces on this disc, it’s far from easy to sing but the New College choristers don’t make it sound difficult. On the contrary, they give a confident, convincing performance, which sets the tone for the whole disc. Like most of the music on the disc Francis Grier’s A Prayer of St. Augustine was new to me. However, I’ve greatly admired several other choral pieces by him that I’ve heard in the past and now this one can be added to that list. After a simple-sounding opening Grier skilfully exploits a palette of rich harmonies and I thought that this splendid piece was a very eloquent response to the words by St. Augustine, which provides the text.

There’s considerable variety in the music that’s included here and though the emphasis is on music written in the last fifteen years or so it’s very good to see fine pieces by two fine composers of the previous generation, Peter Wishart and John Joubert, getting a look in. Incidentally, the Joubert piece was written for this choir, as were the works by Tarik O’Regan and Ryan Wigglesworth.

Throughout the whole recital the standard of singing is absolutely first class. Balance and tuning are impeccable and the choir’s diction is extremely good. I think it’s particularly impressive to find young trebles negotiating some fearsomely demanding music with such aplomb, conviction and finesse, a tribute in itself to the preparation done by Edward Higginbottom. The recorded sound is excellent, making the most of the wonderful acoustics of Douai Abbey. To round off an excellent production the notes, in English, French and German are succinct but most useful. Texts and English translations are supplied. This is one of the finest choral discs to have come my way for some time. I rejoice to find clear evidence that so much high quality music is being written for liturgical use by composers of today. It’s an even greater cause for celebration that this music is regularly being performed at services in New College Chapel – and by other choirs, I fervently hope. I recommend this disc without qualification or hesitation and I look forward eagerly to the third and final volume in this enterprising mini-series.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1.
Christus vincit by James MacMillan
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994; England 
2.
Libera Nos by Ryan Wigglesworth
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
3.
On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin by James MacMillan
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
4.
Into Thy Hands by Jonathan Dove
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
5.
Since I believe in God the Father Almighty by Robin Holloway
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1982; England 
6.
Surrexit Christus by Tarik O'Regan
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
7.
Salve Regina by Gabriel Jackson
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
8.
O Sing unto the Lord by Julian Anderson
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
9.
Ecce beatam lucem by Jonathan Dove
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
10.
A prayer of St. Augustine by Francis Grier
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
11.
Jesu, dulcis memoria by Peter Wishart
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
12.
Whitsun Carol, Op. 115b by John Joubert
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
13.
Human Hymns (2): Love bade me welcome by Judith Weir
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1995; England 

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