MacMillan: Tenebrae - Cappella Nova - International Record Review

Here we find James MacMillan not merely in pious mood but in an intensely devotional frame of mind. The music positively glows with sanctity. There are moments of ethereal luminescence - there's a particularly stunning one around 2'05" in ‘Factus est repente'; passages of immense devotional profundity - the opening of ‘Dominus dabit benignitatem'; and music which seems to peer way back through the mists of time to evoke some kind of Medieval monastic atmosphere - ‘Mitte manum tuam'. These three examples come from a set of seven Strathclyde Motets which were originally written for liturgical use by the University of Strathclyde Chamber Choir. As such they present some fairly serious technical challenges to the performers while at the same time expressing themselves in very direct musical terms.

Certainly it's quite a challenge to bring these off effectively, and I have to confess I really can't imagine any choir accomplishing this feat with greater conviction than Cappella Nova. Even more impressive are the performances of the three Tenebrae Responsories, which the choir commissioned from MacMillan. Scoring them for a group of eight soloists, MacMillan has taken the opportunity to create extended works of the most extraordinary technical and musical complexity; as he says, ‘I knew who the singers were going to be, and there's no point in shirking the realities of these commissions.' Whatever the technical demands of the music, these are performances of rare power and intensity.

Rebecca Tavener points out in her conversation with the composer (which provides the bulk of the booklet notes) that other music on the disc is more ‘useful and user-friendly'. However, even when writing music which, again to quote Tavener is ‘suitable probably for most good parish church choirs', MacMillan is never anything other than inspired. The Missa Brevis, simple and direct, is also profoundly moving, the a cappella forces used to great effect, while Alan Tavener brings out every musical nuance without weighing it down with excessive interpretative zeal. Not everything is entirely a cappella; Mark O'Keeffe provides an improvisatory, reveille-like trumpet descant to ‘In splendoribus sanctorum' (the second of the Strathclyde Motets). However, the weight of the musical argument rests elsewhere wholly on Cappella Nova, a group of 16 voices founded in 1982 by Alan and Rebecca Tavener, the latter not just a gifted conversationalist (as shown by the notes) but also one of the outstanding group of soloists involved in the Tenebrae Responsories.

Coming on top of a succession of fine discs in repertoire ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day, this serves only to reinforce the growing reputation that this Scottish group have established over the past decades. In associating itself with the Scottish label Linn Records, it has also found a highly sympathetic and sensitive partner, whose outstanding recorded sound and general presentation elevate this disc to much the same high plane as the music itself. In short, heavenly music, heavenly singing and heavenly presentation.


International Record Review
05 November 2007