Cappella Nova - Alpha & Omega - BBC Radio 3 'CD Review'

Hosted by Andrew McGregor with Ivan Hewitt

From 2:16:00


IH: Here we have almost all choral music, unaccompanied choral music of the sacred variety. There is one piece which has a solo violin, accompanying or playing alongside the choir beautifully. I think this is on a very different level of invention. There are some very beautiful little miniatures here.

AM: You've chosen the ‘Gloria'...

Track: Missa Dunelmi - II. Gloria

AM: Now that's another world, isn't it? Part of the ‘Gloria' from James MacMillan's Missa Dunelmi, his mass setting of his alma mater, Durham University, in the great cathedral there. We've got a sense of place, we've got a sense of identity, we've got a specific tradition being evoked, but there's always an agenda with Jimmy; what's he telling us about what he's doing and how we're supposed to think.

IH: Well in this particular movement from the mass, I think what he's doing, is juxtaposing the anxiety of modernism with the solace, maybe the certainties of religion and of religious music. This movement actually begins with a rather anxious moment, very like the one we just heard actually, so the trajectory in fact is from anxiety, conjured up in a texture which could almost come from a choral piece of Ligeti, where you have a single pitch surrounded by semi-tonal neighbours, so you get an effective blurring. But where as a Ligeti persists right to the end and one wouldn't leave that world, in Jimmy's music, it's swaged.  It leads into the comfort and glow of tonality in effect, which is precisely what happens in this ‘Gloria'.

AM: It's sung by Cappella Nova conducted by the composer for that piece. In these works, is he building a sort of musical language to suit his own take on the liturgy? Or does it feel to you as sort of practical, occasional music, very much for use in day-to-day worship?

IH: Well, I think it's a bit of both really. I think MacMillan is a very complicated combination of the traditionalists and also somebody who doesn't want to loosen his ties with modernism in music. And at the same time, he wants to make pieces which are practical. Some of the music on this disc is certainly quite taxing I think. In fact, the piece we're about to hear mihi... has another element in his choral music which we didn't hear in the previous piece, which is this great fondness he has for folk-like ornamentation of the melody. Which I imagine is quite hard to sing, particularly when it's presented in overlapping layers, between the voices, as we hear it in this piece.

Track: mihi...

AM: a moving affect, by James MacMillan. You heard there voices by Cappella Nova, directed this time by Alan Tavener. That is properly timeless isn't it? Those celtic ornamentations he uses, and this choir is so good at that as well now.

IH: They are very beautiful I must say. And this piece, although it is partly lifted from the St John Passion, is very beautifully structured I think. It does make a perfect little miniature. And this choir, as you say, really have got that idiom off to a t.

AM: Well, it's a lovely recording as well I think we should point out. Loads of detail and just the right amount of acoustic again. You'll love it in surround if you have the system for it. 

BBC Radio 3 'CD Review'
22 February 2014