This is an excellent disc, comprising a range of James MacMillan’s smaller choral pieces, and at its centre the larger work "Cantos Sagrados" which gives the disc its title.
The Elysian Singers are a relatively small choir (26 names are listed in the booklet), but they turn this entirely to their advantage. The performances are exquisite, characterised by great restraint and sensitivity. The perfect blend between parts and (virtually) perfect intonation are also impressive.
The music itself may not be to everyone’s taste. It is all very beautiful, but for some it may be too much so. When MacMillan’s choral music is collected like this it can seem rather monotonous, one piece sounding rather like the next. The problem is avoided as best it can be here, in performances which bring out the individual character of each piece.
The choir’s strong, pure tone is evident from the opening work on the disc, "Divo Aloysio Sacrum", which has never struck me as a particularly exceptional piece, but which certainly makes a promising beginning. The next two tracks, "The Gallant Weaver", a setting of Burns (as is the only other secular setting on the disc, "So Deep") and "A Child’s Prayer" both demonstrate the choir’s perfect balance. The soprano soloists in the latter are very good though not faultless. "Seinte Mari Moder Milde" poses greater technical challenges than most of the other works, but they are met with no problems whatsoever. One might wish for a little more heft at the climax. Carl Jackson’s organ playing is fine; however, it is a mystery why he is not credited on either the front of the back of the disc, but only on the last page of the booklet. The next track, "Tremunt videntes angeli", is the most recent work on the disc (2002) and is wonderfully performed – a section towards the end, with the sopranos singing in thirds over an semi-aleatoric murmuring accompaniment from the rest of the choir, is absolutely magical.
Next comes the central piece of the disc, "Cantos Sagrados". This work comprises three settings of poems by the Argentinean ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ combined with passages from the Latin mass. In the first movement the choir achieves a really big sound, despite their size. Their enunciation is excellent. The entry of the organ in the middle of the second movement is wonderfully ominous. In general however, the instrument sounds very distant and it would have been nice to have it recorded closer (this would also have made its effect in the first movement more dramatic). The third movement, for my money, is the most moving music MacMillan has written, and this performance is simply fantastic.
The last two pieces, "Christus Vincit" and "So Deep", again receive very good performances, an excellent soprano soloist in the former. The latter is the weakest piece, so it seems a shame to finish with it, but that is no real reason to complain.
This disc is highly recommended to anyone interested in choral music. It is a must for MacMillan fans, and for those who are unfamiliar with his music but would like to try it, it will serve as a particularly accessible introduction. Full texts and translations are included. For those who want more, it would be worth getting hold of a similar collection on Hyperion sung by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, which includes a number of these same pieces as well as MacMillan’s large-scale Mass.