Macmillan: Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman; Who are these Angels?; Bring us, O Lord; etc

COMPOSERS: Macmillan
LABELS: Linn
ALBUM TITLE: MacMillan
WORKS: Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman; Who are these Angels?; Bring us, O Lord; etc
PERFORMER: Cappella Nova/Alan Tavener
CATALOGUE NO: Linn CKD 383

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Aside from being very rewarding to sing, James MacMillan’s religious music makes such a refreshing change from what’s usually offered in churches today. Approachable without being apologetic, emotional but with a sense of dignity, the best of these works can both delight and challenge. Wonderful surprises, like the string quartet’s seagull effects in Who are these Angels?, or the Gesualdo-like harmonic shifts in Pascha nostrum immolatus est, rub shoulders with music that matches the unselfconscious directness of folk or even pop music – MacMillan’s early experience in folk bands has done him no harm at all. At the same time, it must be stressed that we are worlds away here from the limply syncopated pseudo-pop that the church often seems to think will entice the people back into the pews.

The backbone of this programme is the second set of Strathclyde Motets, and this is where you’ll generally find the most absorbing music. The Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman strikes this listener as a little more functionally liturgical – effective enough in context, but relatively short on the kind of ideas that make you catch your breath. At the other end of the scale is the simple but touching Think of how God loves you, written for the baptism of the composer’s granddaughter. (James MacMillan a grandfather? Older readers take a deep breath!) Everything is performed with elegance and the requisite intensity, and the recordings are clear and atmospheric.

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Stephen Johnson