MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross (CD Review - Classic FM Magazine, 2005)

Best buy (opera/vocal) September 2005

In the decade since Stephen Layton’s Polyphony made the premiere recording of MacMillan’s Seven Last Words, choir and conductor have matured in all the best ways. This new Hyperion disc, which includes the first recordings of the Scottish composer’s recent Te Deum and On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, offers an emotionally charged counterblast to those who glibly label MacMillan as ‘Holy Minimalist’. There’s nothing minimal in Seven Last Words, originally commissioned by BBC Television to accompany seven nightly programmes broadcast in Holy Week in 1994.

The strength of MacMillan’s Catholicism propelled him deep into the human and spiritual drama of the crucifixion, his musical response in this 45-minute cantata for choir and strings shot through with searing realism. Stephen Layton is completely in step with the composer’s aesthetic. It shows at every turn of Seven Last Words, from the cataclysmic climax of ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ to the desolation of the work’s string epilogue. What Layton demands from his musicians, he receives with interest, regardless of technical or expressive challenges. Under the care of these performers, On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin emerges as a miniature masterpiece, a work of modern worship rooted in past traditions and unchanging faith.

Andrew Stewart 

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