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Cappella Nova - Who are these Angels? - International Record Review


01 May 2012
International Record Review
Robert Levett

The new recording by Cappella Nova, one of Scotland's foremost chamber choirs in both early and contemporary repertoire and which was founded by Alan and Rebecca Taverna 30 years ago, follows on from its earlier release, 'Tenebrae', which was not only devoted to the music of James MacMillan but included the first set of seven Strathclyde Motets (Mark Rochester reviewed it in November 2007).

Here we have the second final set of seven Strathclyde Motets, like the first set named for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir but, being genuine liturgical rather than concert music, written with amateur performance in mind. Also included are seven further choral pieces and the relatively simple Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, written for congregational use and dedicated to the Most Reverend Mario Conti, Archbishop of Glasgow.

Written between 2007 and 2010, these works represent 'late' MacMillan at his most deceptively accessible. Homophony, polyphony, antiphony, chant; ornamented solos, hummed drones, extremes of register and contrasts between soloist and full choir; the colouristic use of full harp, string quartet and organ: all serve to bring out the meaning of the text in largely syllabic settings of great clarity. Above all, this is beautiful, affecting music which is also severely practical.

That being said, to quote MacMillan from an earlier interview, 'I never want my music to "preach", and I don't use my music to push some kind of agenda'. Thus, in the Strathclyde Motets ll, one is, especially listening to them sitting in the comfort of one's own armchair, drawn to the more abstract spiritual qualities evoked by the music itself. This is true even when a section of text is repeated over and over, as with 'Dabit fractum suum' in the communion antiphon Qui meditabitur, but more so in the gloriously open, transparent O Radiant Dawn, the gently luminous Lux aeterna, the delicate antiphonal  Os mutorum featuring Cappella Nova's offshoot Canty and its harpist William Taylor, and even the more riven, occasionally strident motets such as Pascha nostrum immolatus est.

Of the other works, highlights include the opening piece And lo, the Angel of the Lord, with its wordless humming, soaring solos and vocal efflorescence, the title track Who are these Angels?, with its different vocal and string textures and contrasting of a solo soprano and alto against a male chorus and, finishing the disc in grand style, the antiphon Tota pulchra es for choir and organ - rich in syncopations, dissonances and strong dynamic contrasts.

If the straightforward, attractive Mass sounds workmanlike by comparison, it doesn't suffer for it; indeed, one of the chief pleasures of listening to it resides in the ease of imagining taking part in a performance.

As with the earlier MacMillan release, Cappella Nova under Taverna's direction delivers performances every bit as luminous and attractive as the music itself.  Canty and William Taylor are equally at home in Os mutorum, as is organist John Kitchen in the Advent Antiphon, the Mass and Tota pulchra es.


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