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Classical - Released August 28, 2020 | Resonus Classics

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Composer James MacMillan is best known for his choral and orchestral works, which often have religious and/or political associations. Organ music brings out a different side of the composer's personality, partly because those associations are, to some extent, foreclosed. The works here date from 1983, for the little Wedding Introit, to 2018, for another wedding work, Kenga e Krushqve, for the marriage of the composer's son. This work fuses Scottish, Albanian, and, just for kicks, Cuban elements, and it's a lot of fun. It's also typical, in a way, of MacMillan's organ output, which has a somewhat experimental quality. Some of it has links to the composer's choral music, but by and large, it stands a bit apart. It may be quiet and devoted to the solution of a technical problem, or it may, in the cases of Le Tombeau de Georges Rouault or the final Toccata, require considerable virtuosity from the soloist. It receives this from contemporary organ music specialist Stephen Farr, who confidently approaches the challenges and brings forth wonderful colors from the Rieger Organ of St. Giles' Cathedral. This 1992 instrument is well known to MacMillan and has a seemingly symbiotic relationship to the music that's immensely satisfying. This recording is especially recommended to MacMillan fans; it will add to their appreciation of this composer. © TiVo
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Symphonic Music - Released January 1, 2005 | Chandos

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Religious matters underlie James MacMillan's works on this 2005 Chandos release, and to greater or lesser extents, the composer has created orchestral requiems that may provoke thoughts of human suffering and final things. The Confession of Isabel Gowdie (1990) draws on the 1662 witchcraft trial of a Scottish woman; in MacMillan's account, she represents the thousands of innocents executed during the Reformation. MacMillan's score is mostly elegiac, though the slow passages in the Lydian mode are interrupted by sections of extremely violent music. Programmatically, Confession's narrative is almost simplistic, but effective in its directness. In his Symphony No. 3, "Silence" (2002), inspired by a novel by Shusaku Endo and dedicated to the author's memory, MacMillan wrestles with the problem of pain and God's apparent indifference to genocide. Without knowing MacMillan's literary references or his theological stance, one might regard this single-movement work as more of a brooding tone poem than a proper symphony. Its expressionistic and sometimes aggressive material produces dramatic tension and some propulsion, but the lack of a clear trajectory or tight developmental structure makes this work seem meandering and abstruse. The BBC Philharmonic, conducted by the composer, is gorgeous in its sonorities and textures, but the extremely subdued sound quality obscures many fine details. © TiVo
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Classical - Released October 31, 2011 | Coro

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This collection of sacred choral music, mostly a cappella, includes an exceptionally attractive assortment of James MacMillan's motets and other works written for liturgical use. It would have to be an exceptional church choir that could negotiate the composer's vocal and choral demands, but for those churches, these pieces would lend considerable musical and emotional power to the service. The Sixteen, Harry Christophers' remarkable mixed chamber choir, is undaunted by the extreme virtuosity required and deliver performances that dazzle in their technical polish and expressive impact. This music, while largely tonal, has enough dissonant spice that anything less than immaculate intonation can sound like mush and the Sixteen nails MacMillan's harmonies beautifully. That purity, coupled with acute precision of articulation, makes these performances exemplary accounts of the music. MacMillan can overshoot in his large-scale choral works, some of which tend to lose impact because they can come across as overly ambitious in their attempts at grandeur, but these pieces, most of which last around ten minutes or less, are on a scale that calls forth some of the composer's most inspired writing. Miserere, recorded here for the first time and dedicated to Christophers, is a real stunner in its powerful use of simple means and its transcendent climax. It, like many of these pieces, takes plainchant as its basis. In splendoribus sanctorum, with a solo trumpet accompaniment, is a real show-stopper, creating an awesome, ceremonial sense of majesty. The three Tenebrae Responsories, liturgical descriptions of the crucifixion, are the most dissonant pieces and also among the most powerfully astonishing and expressive works on the album. Coro's sound is characteristically clean, warm, detailed, and well balanced. Highly recommended for fans of contemporary choral music. © TiVo
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Classical - Released April 3, 2020 | Coro

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Few living composers communicate with the emotional directness of James MacMillan. It’s no secret that MacMillan’s profound religious belief drives his creativity, but music this powerful conveys a universal message, and the title of his new symphony, "Le grand Inconnu", suggests many possible interpretations. Imagine a vision too wondrous for eyes alone – ‘the lady more brilliant than the sun’. ‘The lady’ is the Virgin Mary, and The Sun Danced is an ecstatic choral celebration of the Miracle of Fatima commissioned for the Celebration of the Centennial of the Apparitions in Portugal. Mary Bevan is the featured soprano for this, the premiere recording. Harry Christophers writes: ‘By calling his new Symphony ‘Le grand Inconnu’ James has given himself that freedom to explore the mystery of the subject matter and, with repeated listening, we, the listener, discover more and more within the music… From the barely audible breathing at the start of the symphony to the first "forte" that is so sudden and ecstatic that it produces one of those heart pounding moments. Everything is drawn together by James into a cornucopia of sheer virtuosity and brilliance’. © Coro
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Classical - Released May 7, 2007 | Deux-Elles Limited

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Classical - Released June 30, 2000 | BIS

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Classical - Released October 30, 2009 | RCA Red Seal

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Choral Music (Choirs) - Released April 1, 2009 | Naxos

Distinctions Sélection du Mercury Prize
The Seven Last Words from the Cross exemplifies a conundrum not uncommon in the work of James MacMillan: the juxtaposition of sections of exceptional beauty and power with sections that are merely very good. 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. © TiVo
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Concertos - Released June 1, 2006 | Chandos

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Listeners familiar with Scottish composer James MacMillan through such acclaimed works as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) or the Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) may suspect that his music is usually somber and more than a little dour; indeed, his religious and politically themed pieces are quite earnest, and have given some the feeling that it might do MacMillan good to lighten up. Well, he has, though perhaps not to the point where his music is genuinely lighthearted or funny, though that appears to be the intention in his variations for organ and orchestra, A Scotch Bestiary (2003-2004). These characterizations of animals, organized into two unequal movements -- I. The menagerie, caged, and II. The menagerie, uncaged -- have a sharp, satirical edge that keeps the listener alert for stylistic references and quotations. But there is little obvious in MacMillan's music, and unless one is fully aware of the humans he is mocking (i.e., types well-known in Scotland and presumably identifiable elsewhere) the musical jokes fall flat. Because of its veiled allusions and unduly harsh music -- rarely tonal, and stridently dissonant in many spots -- this piece is not a light zoological frolic in the vein of Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, and buyers should beware. The Piano Concerto No. 2 (1999, 2003), which has been choreographed as a ballet, is an energetic work that evokes both Celtic dances and minimalism in an odd mixture of vigorous rhythms and hypnotic repetitions; the kinetic opening of the piece is balanced with soft reflections for the strings in the slow middle movement, and comic parodies in the closing movement. Because of its tunefulness and rhythmic vitality, this work is actually more fun than A Scotch Bestiary, and demonstrates that MacMillan can be quite witty after all. Wayne Marshall's virtuosic playing of both the organ and the piano is interesting to hear and compare, and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by the composer, is vibrant, colorful, and focused in these excellent-sounding premiere recordings. © TiVo
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Classical - Released June 7, 2019 | Signum Records

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Classical - Released August 1, 1998 | Naxos

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Classical - Released May 2, 2014 | Challenge Classics

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Classical - Released January 27, 2009 | Chandos

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Classical - Released October 28, 2016 | Onyx Classics

At least outside Britain, Sir James MacMillan is best known for his sacred pieces. But he has written a good deal of instrumental music as well, some of it large in scope and unafraid of swinging for the fences (if one may be permitted a baseball idiom in this context). The Violin Concerto, written for the performer here, Vadim Repin, bears in addition a dedication to the memory of the composer's mother, Ellen. The work does not lack ambition, bringing in Scottish folk influences, a grimly Mahlerian Viennese slow movement, and, perhaps inexplicably, voices intoning the words "one, two, three, four" in German in the finale. Maybe it's a Kraftwerk tribute. The work is certainly not dull, but more coherent is the Symphony No. 4, in a single 37-minute movement that encompasses aspects of music as "rituals of movement, exhortation, petition, and joy." Although it contains a range of references to Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver and a large variety of orchestral sounds, the work succeeds as a single musical argument. The overall effect may bring to mind a Sibelius turned loose in the modern world. Sample the symphony, preferably at high volume on a good set of speakers. The symphony was recorded live at its Royal Albert Hall premiere, and everything is clear and indicative of real excitement. A fine introduction to MacMillan's instrumental music. © TiVo
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Choral Music (Choirs) - Released May 25, 2010 | BIS

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Choral music has been central to the work of Scots composer James MacMillan throughout his career, and this release features two of his most ambitious works for mixed voices, a newly revised version of Visitatio Sepulchri (1993) for chorus and orchestra and Sun-Dogs (2006) for a cappella chorus. MacMillan's Roman Catholic beliefs are frequently are the forefront of his music, and both these pieces have explicitly Christian themes. He describes Visitatio Sepulchri as a "sacred opera," but there is little overtly operatic about the account of the women coming to Jesus' tomb three days after his death; the first scene is purely orchestral, the second is a highly stylized dialogue between the women and the angels at the tomb, and the third is a setting of the Te Deum. Its structure is eccentric but effective, with its austere first scenes building to an opulently emotional and dramatic choral catharsis in the third. Sun-Dogs, which sets the poetry of Michael Symmons Roberts, liturgical Latin texts and an English traditional rhyme, creatively explores the roles of dogs in Christian tradition. Its construction as a choral suite is relatively conventional, but like the earlier work, MacMillan uses an array of techniques like shouting, muttering, whispering, and whistling that are so organically and expressively integrated that they never sound like special effects. His harmonic language is essentially centered in tonality, but in response to the texts' requirements he is able to summon up a wildness that's almost chaotic, making the resolutions even more dramatic. The Netherlands Radio Choir is splendid: secure, daring, and disciplined, with a warm, luminous tone. Celso Antunes leads them with assurance in the daunting unaccompanied Sun-Dogs, and MacMillan conducts a powerful performance of Visitatio Sepulchri with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic. The sound of BIS' SACD is vivid and natural. © TiVo
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Classical - Released February 10, 2009 | LSO Live

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Classical - Released November 6, 2004 | Catalyst

Much of James MacMillan's orchestral music is concerned with matters of Christian theology, and his concerto for percussion and orchestra, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, may be counted among his most religiously inspired pieces. Outwardly, though, it is ambiguous and difficult to distinguish from purely secular music. Since all of MacMillan's motives and chords are derived from the plainchant hymn for Advent, some will listen for its permutations in the complex network of overlapping fragments. Others will be more interested in the elaborate percussion part, which Evelyn Glennie brings off with ferocious virtuosity and potent force -- always front and center, and fully audible, even when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, is at its loudest and most strident. The remaining selections on this CD are more personally quirky, mundane, and decidedly less cosmic in scope. After the Tryst, ...as others see us..., Dawn Rituals, and Untold are variously ironic, mysterious, sentimental, and whimsical. Selected members of the SCO, conducted here by the composer, play these chimerical pieces with abundant enthusiasm and involvement; but MacMillan's chamber music is too desultory and unfocused to compete with the dynamic Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Originally recorded and released in 1993, this 2004 reissue has exceptional sound quality. © TiVo
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Concertos - Released July 1, 2003 | Chandos

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