MacMillan Tops In Triple-Header With Pärt & Vasks

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Recordings of Arvo Pärt’s music continue to flourish, and no one seems to tire of hearing (or performing) Magnificat or The Woman with the Alabaster Box, Nunc dimittis, or Da pacem, Domine–all of which are included here and stand among the most frequently represented on disc (a couple of dozen instances for Magnificat). Yet, it’s no surprise as to why these works are so popular, their uniquely appealing qualities–of sound, of melody, of harmonic architecture and movement–effecting a sense of timelessness that confers on them a remarkable immunity from wear.

Pärt and his music also benefit from the fact that most of the recordings offer excellent performances, and this one is no exception. In fact, these are among the very best in the catalog: these young, exceptionally well-trained, expert choral musicians, recorded primarily in the special ambiance, tempered by stone, glass, and light, of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel, leave nothing to be desired in their expression of Pärt’s unique, sensuous realizations of sound and silence. This was the venue for so many of the acclaimed recordings by John Rutter and his Cambridge Singers–and, guess who happens to be producer, engineer, and editor of this project: yes, none other than Rutter himself, and the sonic excellence on display here is the result of someone in command who knows the strengths and foibles of that large acoustic space (stand here, place the microphone there). And so, we need not worry at all about the recorded sound of the singing.

But while Pärt may be the “draw” (he gets top billing on the disc cover), it’s actually James MacMillan who likely will leave listeners with the more lasting impression–and induce many repeated hearings–with his Miserere, for mixed a cappella choir. Every now and then a modern choral work does a rare thing: it sets the listener on a path and–voilá–takes him or her just where it promises to take them. No set-up for sudden expectation-be-damned surprise. When you get to the end of this 12-minute-plus piece, you feel you’ve been respected, as an intelligent listener, with both knowledge and feeling, one who is aware of both the conventions and perversions of musical style, who loves beauty and truth in the expression, in whatever form, language, or context it may be presented.

In this case, MacMillan exploits his available musical material with free references to Pärtian style and in his inclusion of the famous Miserere of Allegri, quoting directly and indirectly, while creating a wholly original work that sticks to the path, occasionally goes off on its own seemingly diversionary trail, but always comes back, the “diversion” now realized as an integral bridge to the very satisfying conclusion. And, I have to say that rather than hear the zillionth performance of the Allegri–endless, often vocally tedious, difficult to stage–I am happier to hear MacMillan’s canny referential episodes in this extraordinary work. The excellent performance is marred only by one brief passage of faulty intonation from a soloist.

The usual pairing of MacMillan’s Miserere on recordings is, no surprise, with Allegri’s setting–which of course isn’t just his, but also the work of subsequent elaborators. Here, besides the Pärt works, we get a 15-minute piece by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks: Plainscapes, for mixed choir, violin, and cello. While this work is undoubtedly worthy for its craft and effective use of “wordless” vocal techniques, a “tapestry of abstract sound” (as described in the liner notes) to depict a “sonic journey across [Vasks’] native country”, it’s an odd choice for inclusion on this program. The completely different style, the sound-effects, the secular context–it doesn’t fit. It’s a disruption, although a very well-performed one. Fortunately you have the choice to skip it–and even if you don’t, the rest of the music will soon convince you that you did.

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