Celso Antunes / James MacMillan / Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra / Netherlands Radio Choir

James MacMillan: Visitatio Sepulchri; Sun-Dogs

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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.

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