MacMillan: Tenebrae - Cappella Nova - Gramophone

James MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets are aimed at "good church choirs or good amateur choirs", and the seven recorded here hit the mark pretty unerringly, in that the technical means are simple and the expressive ends rich. If I was in that world, I'm sure I would look forward to singing these pieces again and again.

Composed when he was 17, the Missa brevis shows where a significant part of MacMillan's musical personality comes from. Like the recent motets, it blends the archaic and the modern, using modes as the interface (acknowledged models are Kenneth Leighton and Britten) and treading a fine but sure line between the luxurious and the self-denying. The three Tenebrae Responsories - sung by eight core members of Cappella Nova - are made of sterner stuff, but no more so than is appropriate to the darker textual substance.

Listening at a stretch to 70 minutes of this consoling, numinous music arguably goes against its function as conceived, and wall-to-wall a cappella voices (with a highly effective trumpet obbligato from Mark O'Keeffe in the second motet) could easily become too much of good thing. But such is the purity of the singing and the aptness of Greyfriars Kirk acoustic, beautifully captured by Linn's engineering, that the duty of reviewing was never anything but a pleasure.

One of the most attractive features of this disc is the booklet interview between the composer and a member of the choir (whose questions about Gesualdo and Poulenc, among other things, are precisely on target). Done as intelligently by both parties and avoiding self-congratulation, as here, this format is ideal for a CD of new music; just the absence of dates of composition is slightly frustrating.

01 January 2008