Reflecting Light

Cappella Caeciliana record contemporary pieces and festive classics

On November 22, 1995 – St Cecilia’s Day – a new choir named after the patron saint of music was formed in Belfast. That same choir, Cappella Caeciliana, has just entered its 20th year of existence, and marks it with the release of its forth album, Reflecting Light.

The collection is, to some extent, a conspectus of Cappella’s development over the past two decades. There is, for instance, plenty of music reflecting the choir’s early ambition to revivify repertoire that used to feature prominently in Catholic liturgy, but had fallen from active usage at parish church level.

The opening 'O Nata Lux', by the medieval English composer Thomas Tallis, falls into that category. It’s treated to a raptly expressive performance, which immediately highlights how comfortably at home the choir is in the ecclesiastical idiom. The feeling is essentially devotional, which doesn’t preclude subtle interpretive touches, such as the lowering of dynamic on the repeated imprecation that closes the setting.

The same four notes that launch the Tallis piece were used by contemporary Scottish composer, James MacMillan, five centuries later to start 'O Radiant Dawn', and that composition sits fascinatingly alongside the Tallis in the programme’s sequence.

MacMillan is a more muscular Christian than Tallis, and the Cappella singers again show impressive technical control in the long crescendos marked on the repetitions of the word 'Come', and in their nimble negotiation of the brief syllable rush that comes after.

Half a dozen other contemporary composers feature in the recital, an indication of how strong Cappella’s commitment has become to music of our own era.

The sustained quiet singing required in Morten Lauridsen’s 'O Magnum Mysterium' can easily lead to imbalances between the parts, but not here – this is clearly a choir where members listen carefully to one another, rather than plough a score-bound, blinkered furrow of their own making.

American composer Eric Whitacre’s 'Lux Aurumque', with its tight intervals and eight-part writing, is a major test of poise and tuning for a choir of 25 singers. Again Cappella passes with confidence, conjuring a relishable soft landing on the final thrumming chords of Whitacre’s setting.

There is also a recent piece by Belfast composer Neil Martin, which Cappella commissioned and took to America when they toured there in 2011. 'Exsultet' is unusual in combining the Latin of the Easter Vigil prayer with an interpolated middle section in Irish, where Martin weaves the parts together with the deftness of a hand-spun tapestry.

Alongside works by Byrd, Kodály, Rachmaninov, Palestrina and Pitoni, there is also a strong seasonal flavouring. The Reginald Jacques arrangement of 'Away In A Manger', for example, is particularly successful, the hushed concentration of the final verse aptly catching the atmosphere of humble stable and small, vulnerable infant.

Holst’s 'Personent Hodie', meanwhile, finds the choir’s men in lusty fettle, while only in John Rutter’s gorgeous 'Nativity Carol' do standards slip a little – the tuning here is tired, the tempo sluggish, and it sounds as though another take would have been advisable.

Closing out the album are two pieces which no doubt prove immensely popular at Cappella’s public concerts. First is Bob Chilcott’s tastefully restrained take on the evergreen 'Londonderry Air', where the pipes that are calling in this instance belong to the euphonius organ of Down Cathedral, played by the excellent Stephen Hamill, who also engineered and produced the recording.

Then, finally, the traditional 'She Moved Through The Fair', hauntingly arranged by the choir’s conductor Donal McCrisken. The resonant soprano of soloist Nuala Murray over a muted humming accompaniment makes verse one especially suggestive, and the effect is revisited at the ghostly reappearance of the narrator’s dead lover at the conclusion.

McCrisken has conducted Cappella Caeciliana since 1999, and deserves great credit for the high standards achieved in this album, heralding the choir’s 20th anniversary. With full texts and translations included, it would make an excellent stocking-filler for anyone who enjoys warm, communicative choral singing at Christmas.

Reflecting Light is available to download from various outlets via the Cappella Caeciliana website.