MACMILLAN: A New Song; Mass; Christus vincit; Gaudeamus in loci pace; Seinte Mari moder milde; A Child's Prayer; Changed. Andrew Reid (organ), Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker cond. 
HYPERION CDA 67219 (DDD) TT: 66:37

Scottish composer James Macmillan writes music inspired by his Roman Catholicism.  In the liner notes to this recording, he claims that his faith has hindered acceptance of his music among heathens and non-believers.  I happen to be a heathen, but to a large extent I like his music.  On the other hand, I have encountered works by him (notably, The Seven Last Words) which I haven't cared for, using criteria which have little to do with faith or the lack thereof.  The music simply bored me. I doubt whether my sudden conversion to the Catholic Church would make these works any better for me.

 Now that we've gotten the nonsense out of the way, what about this disc?  Many have lumped Macmillan in with the so-called "Holy Minimalists," but I disagree. To me, his music has at least as much in common with Messiaen, as the organ work Gaudeamus in loce pace makes clear. Other elements make their way into the music, including plainchant and Celtic folk song.  It's a very powerful cocktail, which fits admirably Macmillan's seriousness of purpose, for Macmillan is above all a religious artist, largely free of easy sentimentality.  One senses very strongly a tough mind at work.  However, he also creates beauty, which lets a guy like me in.  Macmillan takes huge musical risks with his works.  Often he shuns development in favor of repetition.  If you're going to repeat, the basic material had better be worth repeating.  Sometimes a work misses for me because that basic matter simply doesn't interest me once, let alone twice.  Make no mistake, however, I like very much indeed all the works on the CD program.

 The problem is that most of them work in roughly the same way: intense, searching dense clusters of sound, gradually becoming louder and breaking through to radiance, with often a final fadeout.  There's nothing wrong with this strategy per se, but it does tend to pall when you hear these pieces one after the other.  I quarrel with the program, rather than with the pieces.  My favorite work is the Mass, for me the deepest as well as the longest, and the Gaudeamus, but the shorter works are gems as well. "Changed," which sets parts of Wallace Stevens's "The Man with the Blue Guitar," counts as the most unusual, from a non-musical standpoint.  On the surface, it seems a meditation on art and the artist, but Macmillan sees it as a discourse on "transformations" and thus links it with to the rite of Communion, something that would probably have surprised Stevens no end. Andrew Reid plays his solo superbly well.  I have a little trouble with the choir trebles as being too light in their sound and wonder whether the music would gain with a full complement of grown-ups. That said, the choir does a fine job with difficult music.  The sound preserves the natural acoustic of a stone church, and the engineers have created or kept a convincing and clear balance between organ and choir.

S.G.S. (May 2001)