MacMILLAN: St. John Passion
Christopher Maltman, baritone; London Symphony Chorus and Orch/Sir Colin Davis, cond.
LSO LIVE SACD LSOO671 (2 disks) TT: 90:20

MacMILLAN: Quickening. Three Interludes from "The Sacrifice."
The Hilliard Ensemble; Robin Blaze, counrter-tenor;Rogers Covey-Crump/Steven Harrold, tenors; Gordon Jones, baritone; City of Birmingham Youth Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; BBC Phiharmonic Orch/James MacMillan, cond.

SUK: Azrael - Symphony in C minor for Large Orchestra, Op. 27.
Helsinki Philharmonic Orch/VladimirAshkenazy, cond.
ONDINE SACD ODE 1132 TT: 61:32

For the past two decades Scottish-born James MacMillan has been a major composer on the contemporary music scene, particularly in England. He first attracted attention in 1990 with his orchestral work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Two years later he wrote a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie, followed five years later by a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich. Much of his music is of a liturgical nature. Sir Colin Davis has always championed MacMillan's music and when he had the opportunity to commission a work to celebrate his 80th birthday, he chose MacMillan to write it. The result—St. John Passion—is heard on LSO's live recording of the premiere in April 2008 in London's Barbican Theater. There is only one vocal soloist, baritone Christopher Maltsman; the other "narrator" is a small chorus along with the full chorus and large orchestra. This is an epic work with many vivid moments, particularly the Crucifixion. St. John Passion ends with a quiet, lengthy Mahleresque orchestral interlude, a powerful, contemplative close. We surely can assume this is a definitive performance, and the recorded sound is well-balanced. St. John is only 90 minutes long and requires 2 disks, but they are sold for the price of one. This is a major release.

More music of MacMillan is heard on another superb SACD, with the composer conducting the BBC Philharmonic. MacMillan's second opera, The Sacrifice, was premiered in September 2007 by the Welsh National Opera to high acclaim. Based on a Welsh tale, it is about wars between clans, love, and sacrifices, particularly by Sian who is forced to leave the man she loves to marry the leader of the rival tribe. Quickening, a cantata for counter-tenor, two tenors, children's chorus, mixed chorus and orchestra, is about birth, new life, and parenthood. It was a joint 1998 commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the BBC Proms. Quickening is another richly-scored big-scale work from MacMillan and, like the finale of St. John Passion, ends softly and mysteriously. Compelling listening indeed, and the performance is superb. Chandos' engineers have captured the many layers of sound most effectively. Complete texts are provided. A quality release!

Josef Suk (1874-1935) wrote his Azrael ("Angel of Death") symphony after experiencing the tragic loss of both his wife and Dvorák, who was his father-in-law. It is a long symphony (61:32) in five movements with a rather sardonic scherzo in the center. There is a "death motif" heard several times in the work, in the final movement played by timpani. Although this symphony has been recorded a number of times particularly by Czech conductors, this new one unquestionably is the finest. Recorded live, the Helsinki Philharmonic is in top form, and for sheer sonic quality, this version surely is the one to have should you wish to experience the music.

R.E.B. (March 2009)