Who Are These Angels? - Choral Music Of MacMillan / Cappella Nova

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"Cappella Nova present illuminating performances which perfectly capture MacMillan's profound sense of the sacred, but here the sense of looking back over the centuries is especially strong...[an] essential addition to the rapidly growing discography of one of Britain's most self-assured musical voices."

- Gramophone, February 13, 2012

Aside from being very rewarding to sing, James Macmillan's religious music makes such a refreshing change from what's usually offered in churches today. Approachable without being apologetic, emotional but with a sense of dignity, the best of these works can both delight and challenge. Wonderful surprises, like the string quartet's seagull effects in Who are these Angels?, or the Gesualdo-like harmonic shifts in Pascha nostrum immolatus est, rub shoulders with music that matches the unselfconscious directness of folk or even pop music - MacMillan's early experience in folk bands has done him no harm at all. At the same time, it must be stressed that we are worlds away here from the limply syncopated pseudo-pop that the church often seems to think will entice the people back into the pews.

The backbone of this programme is the second set of Strathclyde Motets, and this is where you'll generally find the most absorbing music. The Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman strikes this listener as a little more functionally liturgical - effective enough in context, but relatively short on the kind of ideas that make you catch your breath. At the other end of the scale is the simple but touching Think of how God loves you, written for the baptism of the composer's granddaughter. (James MacMillan a grandfather? Older readers take a deep breath!) Everything is performed with elegance and the requisite intensity., and the recordings are clear and atmospheric.

- Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine, March 1, 2012

This disc is a follow-up to the very fine 2007 Cappella Nova CD which included the first set of James MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets. It contains the second and final set of seven motets. Most of the music here is of fairly recent vintage and the majority is designed for use in the Roman Catholic liturgy. That includes the short Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman. This sets the words from the new English translation of the Mass which the Roman Catholic Church brought into use towards the end of 2011. MacMillan says in the booklet that he is “really excited” by this new translation; well, he and I will have to differ there but it’s good that he’s moving quickly to compose some worthwhile music to fit the new words. Listeners should bear in mind that the mainly unison music has been specifically designed for congregational participation. That doesn’t mean that it’s in any way simplistic; I should think the average congregation would need to do a bit of work to master it but the effort would be worthwhile.

The remaining music is specifically to be sung by a choir. I was struck by Tota pulchra es. MacMillan’s response to this Marian text is like no other that I’ve heard. Most are gentle and prayerful or implicitly feminine in tone. MacMillan, by contrast, has composed a surprisingly dramatic, urgent piece. In his setting the devotion to Mary is exciting and fervent and Alan Tavener and his expert choir give it a thrillingly affirmative performance. Another fervent piece is the Easter proclamation Pascha nostrum immolatus est. Indeed, here the fervour is evident even when the music is quieter in tone.

O Radiant Dawn is about the only piece on the disc that I’ve heard previously. It’s become quite popular and I’m not surprised. It’s very attractive and its harmonic language is pretty straightforward. The music has an obvious – and beneficial – indebtedness to O nata lux by Tallis.

Os mutorum is one of the pieces on the disc that’s not specifically for liturgical use. This is an interesting piece which is sung by Canty, a four-voice female ensemble which is a spin-off from Cappella Nova. Rather like Anonymous 4 these ladies specialise in medieval music but they also do quite a bit of music of our own time. Here they sing with a regular collaborator, William Taylor, a specialist in the performance of ancient harp music. MacMillan’s piece is chaste and pure in tone. The textures are spare and the music moves slowly. It’s most effective. And lo, the Angel of the Lord was designed for performance by a group resourced to sing multi-part or antiphonal music; in this case the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra. The piece sets the passage from St Luke’s Gospel in which the Angels announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds. The writing is imaginative and evocative, especially what I can only describe as the choral fireworks at the words “Glory to God in the highest”. This splendid piece is sung tremendously well by Cappella Nova.

I was intrigued to hear what MacMillan would do with John Donne’s wonderful lines in Bring us, O Lord. Sir William Harris is the exemplar here with his glorious setting of the same words. MacMillan’s music is very different and yet … to my ears he achieves the same ambience of longing and quiet intensity. I admire this piece very much indeed.

I’m not quite sure what I make of Who are these Angels? Although the piece is dated 2009 it appears that elements of it go back to when the composer was just seventeen. The new work into which he’s incorporated that early music is rather strange. There are three strands. The male voices declaim passages in Latin – the teenage music, if you like – while the ladies sing a simpler refrain in English. The third strand is provided by the string quartet whose music is mainly quiet and discreet. The c losing moments feature the quartet alone playing strange, high glissandi which, it is suggested in the notes, sound like bird cries.

This is an absorbing disc. It is full of interest and I admire greatly the way in which the composer responds to the words he is setting. Through his music he enriches and enhances them – as a good musical setting of words always should. We are challenged at times but it’s always accessible. The music is superbly performed by Cappella Nova and the recorded sound is excellent, as you’d expect from this label. As with the earlier release, the booklet notes take the form of a very interesting conversation between MacMillan and Rebecca Tavener. I suspect many of these pieces are receiving their first recordings here.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 25, 2011

  • Catalog Number: CKD383

  • UPC: 691062038324

  • Label: Linn Records

  • Composer: James MacMillan

  • Conductor: Alan Tavener

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Canty, Cappella Nova

  • Performer: John Kitchen, William Taylor