Choral level of difficulty: 4-5 (5 greatest)
Five motets scored for SATB with soprano and tenor solos form this remarkable work which, once again, show how we might recognize traits from previous works of MacMillan but find the approach to be always fresh and new.
The chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham Court near Henley-on-Thames is a beautiful, award-winning new Catholic chapel designed by Craig Hamilton architects and built in 2010. It is inspired by Greek temple outlines and is an outstanding example of contemporary architecture perfectly situated and inspiring to those visiting and using it for worship. MacMillan responds to the lofty ideals of the architects with a series of motets which have chant at their heart, are deeply involving in their musical text setting, and which carry the listener on a powerful journey.
Lift High the Ancient Portals with which the work begins has a strongly emotive refrain (with which is starts) interspersed by MacMillan’s ornamented form of chant sung by a tenor and two soprano soloists. The first part of I saw water flowing has completely free moving upper voice parts given ‘chant’ phrases to be sung in each singer’s own time with tenors and basses later punctuating this haze of sound with the motet’s text. Everyone joins together in an extended and beautiful Alleluia before the chanting resumes. See the place where God lives has a strong chorale-like homophonic opening reminiscent of the choral outbursts in Seven Last Words. In the fifth motet, the drama is in the silences between phrases as its opening and the following misterioso eight-part setting which moves into different textures as the music moves to its moving ending at which we marvel at the journey we have undertaken through these original pieces.
This is not a work for the faint-hearted, and while the notes may not in themselves be particularly challenging the confidence required to sing the chant sections so that the listener is not aware of the skill required to achieve the necessary level of performance is likely only to be found amongst really experienced or professional singers. The free chanting in the second motet referred to above will also be something which some choirs may find daunting and not easy to blend and balance. There are also some extremes of pitch needing a particular type of high soprano (top A for nine beats, and top B for ten beats) in the fourth motet.
There are many small expert choral groups working today around the world who will positively relish the demands of this work and whether it is for a liturgical situation or a concert performance these motets will not only give great pleasure to the listener but real joy to the singers.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer