Cappella Nova - Alpha & Omega - International Record Review

In the March 2013 issue I was already looking forward to this disc. The occasion was a release of MacMillan's Missa Dunelmi in a (then) new recording by the Choir of Durham Cathedral. I wrote, knowing that this Cappella Nova SACD was forthcoming, ‘I'm eager to compare the two recordings, as the Choir of Durham Cathedral is an ensemble of girls and men; the booklet lists 29 names. Cappella Nova is an award-winning group comprising adult women and men and is less than half the size of the Durham Cathedral Choir. Stay tuned!' I'm not disappointed. MacMillan composed the Missa not just because it was commissioned but also because Durham was his post-graduate Alma Mater. Thus, the Missa Dunelmi was a way to, in his words, ‘complete the circle', and inviting him to guest-direct Cappella Nova for this recording was another way to bring MacMillan full circle. (For the rest of this SACD, director Alan Tavener reassumes his usual role.) The two recordings approach the Missa from utterly distinctive perspectives. The premiere performers, with their younger voices, are reedy and enthusiastic. Cappella Nova is the more mature, more considered and more polished alternative. Nobody could mistake one for the other. Linn's engineering is more refined too, although Priory's sound is rich in cathedral atmosphere.

This is Cappella Nova's third all-MacMillan disc for Linn Records. The first featured the composer's beautiful Tenebrae Responsories and other recent choral works. The second included many smaller works, plus the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman (reviewed in November 2007 and May 2012 respectively). This time around, we hear a number of smaller works (not all of them new), ending with the one that gives this SACD its title, Alpha & Omega. This is an astonishing work commissioned by Chicago-based Soli Deo Gloria. It opens with anguished, widespread harmonies, as the choir relates, ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.' Significantly, it is difficult to separate feelings of spiritual pain from those of pleasure in MacMillan's masterful setting of the revelatory text. With the words ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying' shrill angel trumpets ring out, and this is followed by the voice of God himself, authoritative but comforting: ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.' Over the course of not even eight minutes, MacMillan takes listeners on an extreme journey, and evokes a range of emotions, from fear and awe to a profound and utterly peaceful sense of being a part of and belonging to the divine.

As with the two earlier releases, the booklet contains an extensive conversation between the composer and Cappella Nova soprano (and co-founder) Rebecca Tavener. Near its end, she asks MacMillan which work, among those recorded here, pleases him most or is central to understanding him as a composer of sacred music. His response is the mihi..., which is derived from a section of the St John Passion, composed in 2007. While part of the choir sings a Stabat mater, another sings Mary's lullaby to her dead son. Thus, in Tavener's words, ‘head music' and ‘heart music' are interwoven, and yet MacMillan's skill as a choral composer is such that there is no loss of intelligibility.

Domine non secundum peccata nostra is different from the other works here because it includes a part for solo violin - really a commentary on the text, and not an accompaniment. (Tavener cannily suggests that it is an ‘angelic observer'.) As the choir entreats God for mercy, the violin hovers around it, as if wishing to intercede for sinners. At one point, before a return to the music that opened this work, it seems to speak for them - perhaps because they no longer can speak for themselves. Violinist Madeleine Mitchell plays her part ethereally.

One ‘problem' with sacred music is that atheists or agnostics, or those of a different faith, may feel excluded from it, or feel that it does not apply to them. MacMillan's Christianity is inseparable from his work as a composer, but I think it would be a grave mistake to give a miss to his sacred music simply because one might not share his theological beliefs. All of the music on this disc is characterized by its intelligence and forward-looking beauty, and rather than shutting some listeners out, I feel that it is inviting all sensitive listeners in.

International Record Review
03 March 2014