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Friday, December 18, 2020

James MacMillan - Visitatio Sepulchri; Sun-Dogs (Celso Antunes; James MacMillan)


Composer: James MacMillan
  • (01) Sun-Dogs
  • (06) Visitatio Sepulchri

Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic (6-8)
Celso Antunes, conductor (1-5)
James MacMillan, conductor (6-8)

Date: 2010



Choral works that touch on the mystical, spiritual and secular

It is remarkable that a Dutch choir can offer such strong and polished performances of these two choral works by James MacMillan, readily surmounting any problems over singing the English text of the a cappella writing in Sun-Dogs. Visitatio Sepulchri on the other hand has a Latin text with powerful instrumental accompaniment. Mary Magdalene’s visit to Christ’s empty tomb after the Resurrection is vividly caught in writing typical of MacMillan. The composer’s intense conducting adds greatly to the impact of an extended piece (45'00") in three scenes, described as a “sacred opera”.

The final scene rounds off the work with a moving setting of the Te Deum, at once the most varied and the most dramatic canticle in the regular liturgy. MacMilllan’s instrumental writing is enhanced by powerful parts for percussion, notably timpani and Chinese blocks, not least in the purely instrumental first scene portraying Mary Magdalene’s first visit to Christ’s tomb. The second scene opens with evocative pianissimo murmuring, before in turn choruses of Angels, Women and singers representing a Cantor begin to tell the story dramatically, aided by violent percussion accompaniment. The choral climax at the end of the Te Deum is ecstatic before the final words, “non confundar in aeternum” (“Let me never be confounded”).

Visitatio Sepulchri dates from 1993 94 while Sun-Dogs, setting mystical poems by Michael Symmons Roberts is much more recent, written in 2006. The a cappella writing is deeply evocative and here too one finds a liturgical reference, this time to the Communion service, notably “Take, eat, this is my body”, using the Roman Catholic missal. Altogether a fine coupling of two superb works, a credit to performers and to the BIS recording engineers, who offer sound both clear and atmospheric.

-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone

More reviews:


James MacMillan (born 16 July 1959) is a Scottish classical composer and conductor. He studied composition at the University of Edinburgh with Rita McAllister and Kenneth Leighton, and at Durham University with John Casken. MacMillan came to the attention of the classical establishment with the BBC Scottish SO's premiere of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Proms in 1990. Further successes have included his second opera The Sacrifice and the St John Passion. MacMillan's music is infused with the spiritual and the political. His Roman Catholic faith has inspired many of his sacred works.


Celso Antunes (born November 12, 1959) is a Brazilian conductor. Antunes studied singing and conducting at the University of São Paulo, then continued his studies on at the Musikhochschule Köln, where he graduated in 1990. In 1991, Antunes founded his own new music group, the Tippett Ensemble, which continues to give concerts throughout Europe, always featuring mainly contemporary music. He has served as Chief Conductor of the Neues Rheinisches Kammerorchester (1994-98), the Champ d'Action (1994-97), the National Chamber Choir of Ireland (2002-07), and the Netherlands Radio Choir (2008-12).


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