This is the third disc of choral music by James MacMillan that Alan
Taverner and Cappella Nova have made for Linn. The two previous discs,
both of which were excellent, were welcomed on MusicWeb International
by Gary Higginson (review)
and by me (review).
This time around Cappella Nova have achieved something of a coup in
that the composer himself conducts them in Missa Dunelmi, surely
a well-deserved seal of approval for their work on behalf of his music.
I expect to make several references to the notes during this review.
They take the form, once again, of a conversation between James MacMillan
and Rebecca Taverner, a co-founder of Cappella Nova and a soprano
with the group. She’s evidently extremely well-versed in MacMillan’s
music and her questions are uncommonly well-informed and perceptive.
Though MacMillan undertook doctorate studies, with John Casken, at
Durham University he admits in the aforementioned conversation that
during his time there he wasn’t especially active as a choral
composer and his connection with the cathedral was ‘minimal’.
The request from the cathedral to write a Mass for their choir came
much later. It’s a Missa Brevis, lacking a Credo setting and,
like everything else on the disc apart from Domine non secundum
peccata nostra it’s for a cappella choir. The Mass
is modest in scale and tone - I’m almost tempted to say humble
- and the music is largely thoughtful in tone, even in the Gloria,
which might be expected to include extrovert music. I was struck at
the end of that movement by the way in which MacMillan sets the word
‘Amen’. Here is no confident, still less assertive, signing-off.
Instead the Amen is sung on a diminuendo and the very last time that
we hear the word it’s sung quietly and, it seems, from a distance.
It’s most unusual and very effective. The Sanctus is prayerful
and, at times, almost withdrawn though the Hosanna is very affirmative,
both here and after the Benedictus. The music of the Agnus Dei is
principally chordal. The movement is slow and meditative and has a
grave, subdued beauty. For all its restraint - indeed, perhaps thanks
to that restraint - Missa Dunelmi makes a strong impression.
This performance, we are told, is the first one that the composer
has conducted and it’s a very good one indeed.
A few months ago I reviewed
an excellent disc of MacMillan’s music by the Choir of Westminster
Cathedral. As I listened further to this new Cappella Nova disc I
became increasingly struck by the contrast between the two programmes.
The Westminster disc, recorded with a larger choir in a huge acoustic,
contained several pieces which I might term ‘public’ in
tone. By contrast, the predominant mood of this present programme
is more intimate; though by no means all the music is quiet the prayerful,
reflective nature of Missa Dunelmi tends to predominate. I
think this contrast is good for it reveals a different aspect of MacMillan’s
liturgical music and a different - and equally valid - way of approaching
it. So, devotees of his music who already have the Westminster disc
can and should invest in this Cappella Nova programme too, their decision
helped by the fact that there is no duplication of music whatsoever.
The four items that follow the Mass are all Marian pieces, an intelligent
bit of programming. I was aghast to read in the notes that MacMillan
and his frequent librettist Michael Symmons Roberts were once accused
by a musicologist of misogyny in their work together. I’ve heard
a lot of MacMillan’s works now, including several in which he
collaborated with Symmons Roberts, and an association with misogyny
has never even entered my head. I haven’t read the paper in
which that view was put forward so I don’t know on what basis
the thesis was advanced but, based on the pieces I’ve heard
it seems a contrary view to me. I don’t think any of the four
works recorded here could be cited as evidence against MacMillan.
Among these Marian pieces…fiat mihi… is a re-working
for a cappella choir of a passage from his stunning St John
Passion (review). It’s a very beautiful setting which, to my ears,
most effectively conveys the anguish - yet also the dignity - of Mary
at the foot of the Cross. This is another subdued piece: here is no
breast-beating; rather, Mary’s composure despite suffering is
suggested. It was logical to follow that piece with Cum vidisset
Jesus which sets the passage from St John’s Gospel when
the dying Christ commits his mother to the care of the disciple, John.
Here too much of the music is subdued and thoughtful in tone though
the words of commendation are more passionate.
Invocation is a setting of words by the late Pope John Paul
II. I was intrigued to read that this setting originated in a very
secular way. Originally MacMillan wrote it for soprano and small ensemble
as a kind of cabaret song and it was first heard during a political
cabaret event, organised by Dominic Muldowney, at the Almeida Festival.
MacMillan says that he ‘didn’t let on who the author was
and they thought it was a kind of left wing protest song!’ I
think the late Pope might rather have enjoyed that irony, though perhaps
it does show how close Christianity and left wing political ideals
can be. To be honest, the cabaret origins of the piece are hard to
imagine when one listens to this beautiful, dedicated music given
a rapt performance by Cappella Nova.
Domine non secundum peccata nostra was written to mark the
500th anniversary of St John’s College, Cambridge
and is dedicated to the college’s Director of Music, Andrew
Nethsingha. The piece incorporates an obbligato violin and the composer
admits that the difficulties of balancing the violin against the singers
had rather put him off writing for comparable forces again but that
this performance by Cappella Nova and Madeleine Mitchell has convinced
him that the combination works. It certainly comes across well here;
the violin is so balanced that its sound registers properly with the
listener without dominating. That’s clearly a tribute to the
skill of the musicians but it must also reflect well on Producer/Engineer
Philip Hobbs who has recorded the whole programme expertly, producing
sound that is atmospheric yet clear.
The conversation in the booklet between the composer and Rebecca Taverner
is required reading. The booklet is beautifully produced with very
clear typeface - would that this was always the case! It’s a
minor irritant, however, that the documentation omits the dates of
composition of the various pieces, which I think is rather important
information. It only took me a few minutes to find the information
from the website of MacMillan’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes
so why can’t these details be provided in the booklet to purchasers
of the disc?
That’s a small cavil, however, when everything else about this
release is so good. The music is stimulating and compelling and the
performances are first rate. I should imagine James MacMillan is delighted
with the committed advocacy of his music by Cappella Nova: once again
they have done him proud.