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Mary’s Song
Frank HAVRØY (b.1969)
O magnum Mysterium (2008) [4.12]
Ave Maria (2010) [3.15]
Salve Regina
(2013) [6.37]
Stabat mater
(2011) [10.01]
Javier BUSTO (b.1949)
Salve Regina
Knut NYSTEDT (1915-2014)
Mary’s Song (1997) [6.55]
Ramona LUENGEN (b.1960)
Salve Regina [6.01]
Ensemble Ylajali/Palare Bakksjø
rec. Rosvik Church, Sorfold, Norway, 2012/13

This is a disc of contemporary settings of texts in honour or in praise of the Virgin Mary. They are mainly by Scandinavian composers and are sung by an all-female Norwegian choir. There is a gorgeous and jolly colour photo of them in the booklet and there are over twenty of them. The sound can be big and warm but also encompasses sensitivity and light. As the brief booklet notes admit, “Mary is the saint above all others”, adding later “in Mary’s Song she is given a voice and she is astonished and troubled by the small, helpless saviour left in her custody”.

The standard texts for this subject include Mary’s prayer at the foot of the cross - the Stabat mater - a thirteenth century poem sometimes attributed to Pope Innocent III. There is O Magnum Mysterium - a Christmas text about the mystery of Christ’s birth. Both of these are set by a name new to me: Frank Havrøy who is also one of the producers of this CD. Also appearing here is the Magnificat, the words of Mary at the annunciation, words sung or said every day in every British cathedral. There is the simple and popular prayer Ave Maria gratia plena and the Salve Regina ‘Hail Queen of Mercy’, very popularly set in the medieval and renaissance periods although the text is probably ninth century.

The Havrøy settings — the Magnum Mysterium and the Stabat Mater — top and tail the disc and centrally placed in the programme are his Ave Maria and the very lyrical Salve Regina. His style is as demonstrated by the short former motet which is deceptively simple, diatonic and beautifully crafted. It is not especially original but elegantly written for the voices. Intonation would be a regular challenge but is well controlled by these voices and by the conductor whose ear for textural balance is exemplary. These pieces are often homophonic and to my ears the great Liber Canticorum of Vagn Holmboe is not that far away. In the Salve Regina I was reminded, just a bit, of Poulenc.

The recording gets its title from Knut Nystedt’s setting of Mary’s Song - a poem by the English Christian poetess Luci Shaw. His setting demonstrates a penchant for harmonies built around pedal points. Nystedt climaxes the piece, in suitably dissonant style, with the poem’s last lines “… and for him to see me mended I must see him torn”. Nystedt didn’t want to end it there and so repeats the first half a dozen lines in a mood of beautiful desolation. Like many of the other pieces on the CD the tempo is slow and reflective throughout. This is the only piece on the CD in English and for this piece only I felt that the choir’s diction let them down somewhat.

There are two pieces by the Spaniard Javier Busto. You might think when the Magnificat starts that it is a setting ‘in alternatim’; that is with plainchant on alternative verses. However this does not quite work out as the chant develops into a sort of free monody to contrast with the homophonic writing. There are also changes of tempo and the whole composition is beautifully structured. Busto’s setting of the Salve Regina also alternates monody with homophony. To give it an even more ‘antique’ flavour there are several passages of great beauty with rising and falling first inversion harmonies.

The only other work on this rather short CD is by Canadian composer and choral conductor Ramona Luengen. Her Salve Regina makes a hat trick of settings on this CD and it’s the one I will probably return to most. It has a calm ethereal quality coupled with wide-ranging, lyrical lines especially in the top soprano. It must be an absolute joy to sing.

The CD comes in the now quite common, cardboard casing. The booklet has photographs with all of the texts translated into English and Norwegian. The recording is clear and beautifully evocative.

Gary Higginson


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