Cantos Sagrados: The Music of James MacMillan


Signum Records are pleased to welcome a new ensemble to the catalogue: The Elysian Singers perform choral works by composer James MacMillan.

MacMillan characteristically draws inspiration for his vocal works from recurring themes such as the Catholic Church and Scottish traditional culture.

The most substantial work on this recording is Cantos Sagrados (“Sacred Songs”). MacMillan takes the poems of Latin American poets Ariel Dorfman and Ana Maria Mendosa, and combines their settings of political repression with traditional religious texts to create a powerful combination of liberation theology. The result is at times delicate, and then terrifying. The composer’s intentions were to create a work both sacred and secular, being timeless yet contemporary.

Of the other works on this disc, the majority are settings of Latin or English religious texts often written for particular occasions or places. A Child’s Prayer, for instance, was dedicated to the victims of the Dunblane tragedy of 1996, where one teacher and sixteen of her pupils were shot dead whilst in class. One of the two secular works on this recording, The Gallant Weaver is a setting of that most Scottish of poets, Robert Burns, to a nostalgic evocation of Celtic folk-music.

The Elysian Singers were founded in 1986. Since 1999 they have been directed by Sam Laughton and have established a national reputation as a young and lively chamber choir, winning awards for commissioning new music.


What people are saying

This is an excellent disc … The performances are exquisite, characterised by great restraint and sensitivity. The perfect blend between parts and … perfect intonation are also impressive.

Simon Smith, Musicweb


“that superb choir”

John Woolrich, Radio 3


Read what has been said about previous performances:

“Amongst chamber choirs, they’re one of the best.”

Sir John Tavener


The Elysian Singers
directed by Sam Laughton

Release date:10th May 2004
Order code:SIGCD507
Barcode: 635212050729

BBC Music Magazine – Pick


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.

Simon Smith

  1. Divo Aloysio Sacrum (1991) – –
  2. The Gallant Weaver (1997) – –
  3. A Child?s Prayer (1996) – –
  4. Seinte Mari Moder Milde (1995) – –
  5. Tremunt videntes angeli (2002) – –
  6. I Identity – Cantos Sagrados (1990) –
  7. II Virgin of Guadalupe – Cantos Sagrados (1990) –
  8. III Sun Stone – Cantos Sagrados (1990) –
  9. Christus Vincit (1994) – –
  10. So Deep (1992) – –

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