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Music: choral works by James MacMillan at St Dominic’s Priory, Haverstock Hill

by
24 June 2022

Matthew Power hears pieces by MacMillan

ISTOCK

LAST year marked the 800th anniversary of the Dominican order’s arrival in Britain. Its London community settled near Haverstock Hill in the 19th century and soon established the imposing Priory of St Dominic, now also the Shrine Church of the Holy Rosary, in 1883. Because of the pandemic, anniversary celebrations have extended to this year.

A recital of choral works composed by Sir James MacMillan was performed by the 18 voices of Scotland’s only professional vocal ensemble, Cappella Nova. The choir, directed by Alan Tavener, celebrates the 40th anniversary of its founding this year, and has made acclaimed recordings of MacMillan’s music; the programme reflected the content of its fourth such disc, Consecration, recently released by Linn Records.

The Culham Motets (2017) are five substantial unaccompanied settings of words from the liturgy of consecration, and commissioned by the Schwarzenbach family for that service at the new Chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham Court, their estate near Henley-on-Thames. MacMillan’s language, at once profound and immediate, absorbs listeners and leaves lasting imprints of shapes, textures and sonorities to encourage further exploration.

“Lift high the ancient portals” opened the set with powerful tenor declamation and luminous soprano duet hovering over a soft choral drone. “I saw water”, familiar as the Eastertide asperges antiphon Vidi Aquam, used a quiet palimpsest of upper parts to convey a watery scene before staccato interjections from lower voices evoked monastic organum, and an extended melismatic Alleluia returned to the quietest liquid evocation.

The choir’s blend and warmth enlivened the reverberant building in “See the place where God lives”, beneath a solo soprano line, characterised by incantation, its rising seventh intervals repeating like birdsong. “From the hand of the angel” speaks of clouds of incense, and the tenor line above rich choral harmonies is that of simple and familiar plainchant, here reimagined into a fresh sound-world for a new sacred space.

“Your light will come, Jerusalem” completed the cycle with harmony that became increasingly insistent and dissonant, and compellingly so to our now accustomed ears.

The organist Stephen Farr joined the ensemble for the remainder of the programme, beginning with a solo piece on the priory’s original “Father” Willis organ. Reworking a famous Albanian folk melody, Kenga e Krushqve (song or dance of the in-laws) MacMillan formed a joyous and exotic prelude to the reflective choral miniature When the Day Breathes (2018).

The powerful and unusual A Special Appeal (2017) was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey on the centenary of the birth of Archbishop Óscar Romero — murdered in 1980, beatified in 2015, and canonised in 2018 — and uses text drawn from a sermon that he preached against torture and war; its plaintive petitions became newly apposite.

“Sing joyfully” contrasted complex and serene elements, a feature that MacMillan uses so well, like the opening of a door into another realm; the structure was reinforced by skilful organ-playing. A simple encore, the baptismal anthem Think of How God Loves You concluded an evening of music from a composer whose growing catalogue of sacred music continues to excel.

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