Seven Last Words from the Cross is James MacMillan’s eccentric yet highly dramatic presentation of the last seven sentences uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion. The piece really displays MacMillan’s compositional eclecticism. At times, it is a tender and delicate lament, often surprisingly tonal. At others one finds moments of awe-struck mysticism, or terrifying atonal string and vocal assaults. As such, it is a challenging piece, handled well by the young singers and reduced forces of Clare College Choir and the Dmitri Ensemble, under the direction of Graham Ross, the conductor of both groups.
Clare were most assured delivering MacMillan’s grand choral proclamations. ‘Woman, Behold Thy son’ seemed like an Anglican Magnificat gone wrong, full of grotesque clashing notes, whereas the closing movement, ‘Father, into Thy hands’, was tortured and expansive, heavily indebted to Tavener’s mystical Orthodox style. The intertwining duets of ‘Verily, I say unto’ were expertly sung by the young soloists, mastering the Eastern-inflected ornaments, another Tavenerian conceit. On the other hand, MacMillan’s word painting was less distinctly realised, with the muttering of crowds and plainchant interjections slightly garbled.
As experienced performers of MacMillan’s music, having recorded Seven Last Words under Ross for Naxos in 2009, the Dmitri Ensemble shifted between his different stylistic modes well. The Stravinskian brutalism of ‘It is finished’ was immediate in its pure terror. They were particularly lush and expansive in the opening and closing movements, ‘Father, forgive them’ and ‘Father, into Thy hands’, the latter of which collapses into mournful Britten-esque duets.
MacMillan’s contrapuntal writing is naturally less expressive, lacking his usual immediacy and naturalism. As such, Clare and the Dmitri found the complex ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani’ more difficult to unlock. But MacMillan at his best is a highly idiomatic writer for voices and strings – ‘I Thirst’ was a tremendously moving Pendereckian cry of anguish, full of wailing violins and piercing voices.
Whereas Dmitri have become established as performers both of MacMillan and challenging repertoire outside the contemporary canon, Clare are a choir growing in confidence. Under Ross’ direction since 2010, they are agile and unafraid of ambitious projects and challenging repertoire. Forthcoming are collaborations with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Aurora Orchestra.