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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Music for the Queen of Heaven - Contemporary Marian Motets
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Salve Regina [4:53]
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Ave Regina caelorum [3:49]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Salve Regina [4:37]
Sir Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
Song to the Virgin Mary [12:11]
Cecilia MCDOWALL (b. 1951)
Alma redemptoris mater* [5:19]
Matthew MARTIN (b. 1976)
Ave virgo sanctissima* [3:36]
Cheryl FRANCES-HOAD (b. 1980)
Gaude et laetare* [4:39]
Hilary CAMPBELL (b. 1983)
Ave Maria* [4:07]
Stephen DODGSON (1924-2013)
Dormi, Jesu* [2:33]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Magnificat* (St Pancras Service) [5:57]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Regina coeli, laetare [3:08]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Ave maris stella [4:35]
The Marian Consort/Rory McCleery
rec. 2017, St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London. DDD
Texts and English translations included
*First recording
DELPHIAN DCD34190 [59:31]

I’ve never heard The Marian Consort sing live; my experience has been confined to a number of their CDs for Delphian and all those that I’ve heard have impressed me strongly (review~ review ~ review). I was aware that they also sing more recent music in concert but it wasn’t until 2016 that I was able to experience them in modern repertoire when I heard their superb disc of music by Sir Lennox Berkeley (review): that disc was one of my 2016 Recordings of the Year.

I’ve long believed that, in the right hands, pre-Classical music and some of the music of our own time can go well together. Not only can these types of music complement each other in programmes – provided the right music is selected – but also performers of the earlier music often excel also in contemporary music; perhaps one reason is that both types of music require precision in performance. Here Rory McCleery and his fine consort of singers prove that point in spades. Several of the pieces in this programme have been written specially for the Consort and it will be noted that there are five premiere recordings.

One of the things which drew me to this disc was the opportunity to hear some pieces which I’d previously heard sung by slightly larger ensembles. For instance, I’ve heard the Howells piece sung on disc by The Finzi Singers (CHAN 9021) and by Wells Cathedral Choir (review). I’ve heard the MacMillan anthem sung by a number of choirs, including the Choir of Westminster Cathedral (review) and the Gabriel Jackson item in a fine recording from Edinburgh Cathedral Choir (review). One other point of difference between those recordings and the new one is that most of them were not only sung by larger choirs but also were recorded in larger, more reverberant acoustics than we experience in this Marian Consort recording and with the singers at a greater distance.

There was an immediate chance for comparison since The Marian Consort open their programme with Gabriel Jackson’s Salve Regina. I’ve greatly admired this composer for a good number of years now, not least for his rich and imaginative choral textures. By comparison with the excellent Edinburgh Cathedral recording one misses here something of the richness of texture but there are many compensations. McCleery and his eight singers (SSAATTBarB) allow you to hear the textures with maximum clarity so that all is revealed. Yet the warmth in the music does not suffer and this rapt, serene piece comes across marvellously. Both performance and work are perfectly poised. This is a most promising start.

Judith Weir’s Ave Regina caelorum is full of vitality as a work. The performance by six singers (SSATBarB) is equally vital and the use of so few voices ensures that the music is exceptionally light on its feet. Howells’ Salve Regina is an early work; it is one of a set of four motets that he composed in 1915 for R R Terry and the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. The piece is indebted to Tudor vocal music and it’s a fine achievement. As I mentioned, I’m accustomed to hearing it from slightly larger forces but the use of just a few voices (SSATBarB) brings a new dimension to the music. Towards the end – at “O Clemens” – there’s a rapturous soprano solo. McCleery has brought in a guest singer, Anna Dennis, who has a rather more voluptuous tone than the Marian Consort’s two sopranos. As a result, the contrast between the solo and the main ensemble is a bit more marked that usual and I like that very much.

The most substantial piece on the programme is Andrzej Panufnik’s Song to the Virgin Mary which, despite its English title, is sung in Latin. It’s a setting of an old Polish hymn. In her notes Alexandra Coghlan rightly uses the word “hypnotic” to describe this piece. After an extended soprano solo the music gradually becomes more intensely devotional as more voices are added (the scoring is SSATBarB). The singing here is highly focused and the climaxes in the music are properly ecstatic.

Like the Panufnik, most of the pieces in the programme are scored for six voices. Cecilia McDowall’s Alma redemptoris mater was the very first piece composed specifically for The Marian Consort. At the outset there are hints of the incipit from the plainchant melody to which this text is often sung – no doubt a nod to the Consort’s core repertoire. But McDowall also pays tribute, I think, to that repertoire through her inventive part writing. I’ve not heard this piece before – this is its first recording – but I can see it sitting comfortably alongside Renaissance polyphony. Matthew Martin also sets his Ave virgo sanctissima in six parts but he effectively divides the consort into the three upper and the three lower parts. Martin’s harmonies are rather more astringent than is the case in some of the other pieces, especially in the lower voices – and none the worse for that. Much of the writing effectively contrasts somewhat stark music in the lower parts and more beautiful material in the upper voices.

Much of the music in this programme is fairly tranquil but Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Gaude et laetare is aptly described by Alexandra Coghlan as “a thrill-ride of an anthem”. The parts tumble over one another in a manner that’s somewhat akin to (deliberately) chaotic bell peals. Just to add to the excitement, glissandi are thrown into the mix from time to time. This is a highly exuberant piece and one that demands considerable virtuosity from the performers.

Hilary Campbell offers welcome contrast in her tranquil Ave Maria, which is beautifully laid out for six voices. There’s contrast again in Stephen Dodgson’s Dormi, Jesu. This is scored for just three voices (SAT) and the sound is very delicate, even fragile. This is a refined little piece, exquisitely performed. Roxanna Panufnik’s Magnificat is another very interesting piece. Mary’s response to the message of the Annunciation is voiced with what Alexandra Coghlan rightly terms “a muscular shout of excitement”. That motif, in a variety of forms, recurs several times in the piece. Roxanna Panufnik’s setting is most imaginative.

I referred earlier to The Marian Consort’s excellent Lennox Berkeley disc. It’s good to find them including a short work by him in this programme too. For the most part his Regina coeli, laetare is a sprightly piece and that’s entirely fitting for an antiphon which the Church uses throughout Eastertide. I love the little pay-off at the end on the word “laetare”.

The recital began with a wonderful piece and so it ends. James MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, here sung by 10 voices, is, by his standards, a work of great musical simplicity. The writing is almost entirely subdued and homophonic; this is MacMillan at his simplest and most direct. Only at the end do the sopranos soar ecstatically during the warm-toned “Amen”. This is another piece which I’m accustomed to hearing sung by a larger group but here I relish the extra clarity which The Marian Consort brings to the music.

This is an outstanding, memorable disc, not only in terms of the repertoire but also – and crucially – in the manner of performance. When you’re singing in a group as small as this there really is no hiding pace but the singing of The Marian Consort is flawless throughout. Tuning, ensemble and balance are immaculate. That would be no mean achievement in polyphonic music but here where the composers’ demands can be even greater it’s particularly impressive. The ensemble has been beautifully recorded by Paul Baxter: the sound is clear and with just the right degree of ambience around the singers. Finally, the documentation is excellent, as is usually the case with Delphian: Alexandra Coghlan’s notes are first rate.

John Quinn



 

 




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