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Cappella Nova - Who are these Angels? - American Record Guide


01 March 2012
American Record Guide

What I admire most about James MacMillan's sacred music is that it speaks in a variety of stylistic voices-all of them genuine. 72 minutes is a long period to take your a cappella fare straight, but time passes quickly because there is so much to feed the soul. No one lays down a drone figure with more evocative harmonies undulating under the surface than MacMillan. You hear that right off as the choir accompanies a handsome tenor solo in ‘And Lo'. (And what an explosion of joy there is when the angels finally come together in song!) A gentle harp lights the way of the blind in ‘Os Mutorum', while ‘Benedictus Deus' (the snappiest thing here) is a Renaissance motet on Brucknerian steroids. ‘Who Are the Angels?' (which serves as the title of the program) is accompanied by instruments that add to the spiritual atmosphere and end the mini-cantata with a series of sliding pitches calling to mind the sounds of seagulls. The Missa Brevis for choir and organ dedicated to John Henry Newman takes its place among the countless solid and righteous evocations of the liturgy crafted by the composers of the British Isles. And in a complete change of pace, ‘Think How God Loves You' imparts its awesome message with childlike simplicity. (It was sung at the baptism of MacMillan's grand-daughter.)

The choir is quite shrill in the soprano department, but very much in league with the composer on matters of drama, mood, and spiritual presence. Linn's recorded sound is strong and reverberant, which enhances the power of the music but doesn't do much to rein in those sopranos. Texts and translations are included, along with an interview where the composer seems to downplay the virulence of Richard Wagner's anti-semitism. ("He was the same as any other German of that time in his prejudices.") I confess that, as a Jew, I was taken aback by his comments; but this seems neither the time nor place to respond. Whatever his beliefs, MacMillan is a hell of a composer and I'll just leave it at that.


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