Cappella Nova - Live Review - The Herald

24 November 2007
The Herald - Live Review
Conrad Wilson
5 Stars

Four and a half centuries of church music divided James MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets, which formed one element of Cappella Nova's concert in Edinburgh last night, from Palestrina's eight-part Missa Confitebor tibi Domine, which formed another. Rather than separate modern Scotland from sixteenth-century Italy, however, the small chorus and their conductor Alan Tavener interwove them so as to create a single musical experience, spiced with some dashes of Gregorian chant and intensified by a request not to applaud between items.

Yet the mixing of periods was neither gimmicky, as it could have been, nor merely mechanical. Although the atmosphere was ecclesiastical, the thrust of the evening was operatic, slightly Brittenish, with Palestrina's entrance delayed, as it were, until the start of the second act. Here MacMillan's responsorial psalm Before the Angels - based on a simple, memorable four-bar melody in which the audience was encouraged to participate - became a recurring leitmotif. Choral passages were pierced by eloquent operatic solos. Set against the backcloth of Palestrina's flowing, glowing mass, MacMillan's music (risking being swept aside by that of his great predecessor) steadily gathered force.

Rooted in the Missa Brevis the boy MacMillan once wrote for his school choir (incorporated in the first part of the concert), the church drama progressed into the MacMillan of today by way of what the programme note called "real people's music" of the sort he composes for St Columba's in Glasgow - and which has been performed in Barlinnie Prison, with the contribution of the prisoners themselves. Though it was, in the end, a very full, perhaps overstuffed, evening, it was presented in the composer's presence with increasing radiance.

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