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Rosa Mystica - Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir / Paul Spicer
Callum Alger (organ)
rec. June 2019, St. Alban the Martyr, Birmingham
Texts and English translations included

Just before this CD arrived for review, I heard Paul Spicer talking about it on BBC Radio 3. He made the point that the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir (RBCCC) is unique among UK conservatoire choirs in sustaining a regular programme of commercial recordings. Under his leadership they began recording as long ago as 2007, initially with Regent Records; since 2011 they have had an exclusive arrangement with SOMM Recordings and I think I’m right in saying this is their seventh disc for the label. I’ve heard most if not all of their previous releases for both labels and I’ve been impressed by the consistent high quality of the singing. That’s not easy to achieve with a student choir when, inevitably, there’s a churn of membership each academic year, but Paul Spicer has achieved that consistency. The other thing I like about their recordings is the enterprise of the programmes the choir offers. This latest offering, featuring the cohort of academic year 2018/19, is no exception.

Paul Spicer’s selection of Marian pieces ranges widely, from the sixteenth century up to the present day. The musical menu takes in a few familiar items, such as the little gem by Pierre Villette and Bruckner’s superb motet and, on the other hand, music which will be unknown to many listeners including, for example, the piece by Martin Dalby. There are three first recordings on the programme.

The order in which the pieces are presented on the disc indicates discerning planning also. So, for example, right at the start we hear a short, rapt piece by Sir John Tavener followed by the bracing contrast provided by exuberant Tudor polyphony. The Tavener is a short piece extracted from his huge choral work The Veil of the Temple (2003). Mother of God, here I stand is a simple, radiantly devotional piece for a cappella choir. It’s beautifully sung here but, in the booklet, we learn that Tavener marked the music to be sung ‘hushed, with infinite tenderness’. I think that the RBCCC singers meet the second of those requirements but I wonder if an even more hushed effect could have been achieved if for this one item the choir had been more distanced from the microphones, as is done on Stephen Layton’s complete recording of the concert version of The Veil of the Temple (review). Notwithstanding that slight reservation, the RBCCC’s committed performance of this devout miniature gets their recital off to a fine start.

The piece by Nicholas Ludford poses a significant challenge. It’s a superb example of florid Tudor polyphony. Not only that, it’s a really exciting piece. Normally, music like this tends to be the preserve of specialist ensembles such as The Sixteen or The Cardinall’s Musick, and for very understandable reasons. It is demanding for a choir to sustain energy through the very long, winding vocal lines. It’s equally hard to deliver the complex and in this case exuberant polyphony with clarity. Expertly prepared and conducted by Paul Spicer, these young singers meet these demands head-on and succeed. I enjoyed their performance of this splendid piece very much. I referred to the excellence of Paul Spicer’s conducting. He seems to know instinctively just when to give a particular vocal line a degree of prominence in the texture; listen, for example, to how the bass line is briefly brought out at 7:09 in a way that makes one aware of how important that line is at that juncture.

I was delighted to find that a piece by the late Martin Dalby has been included. It appears that Mater salutaris has been recorded before but I’ve not encountered it. Scored for chorus with organ, it’s a setting of a macaronic text in English and Latin. The music is flowing and instantly attractive. The piece is founded on a very pleasing theme which is heard in the first verse of the text and which is then developed and varied according to the demands of the words. The inclusion of Mater salutaris is most welcome.

Also new to me was Ola Gjeilo’s Second Eve. I’ve encountered quite a bit of his choral music in the past and I’ve admired what I’ve heard. This is another very interesting piece which features passages of rich 8-part homophonic music and more flowing polyphonic episodes. I like the way Gjeilo’s tone of voice becomes much more forthright towards the end before he concludes the piece gently. Though I’ve heard examples of Gjeilo’s work before, the music of his fellow Norwegian, Trond Kverno, is entirely new to me. His Ave maris stella is a somewhat unusual response to these familiar words but I think it’s effective and it certainly caught my interest. Kverno concludes his piece by setting quietly the opening words of the Ave Maria. That ending came as something of a surprise but I liked it very much.

Given the theme of the programme, it’s no surprise to find two settings of the Magnificat are included. My goodness, they could scarcely be more different. Paul Spicer is a noted advocate of Sir George Dyson. Not only has he recorded some of his music in the past but he’s also the author of a definitive biography of the composer (review). Dyson wrote three settings of the evening canticles. There’s an early unison setting in C minor and two SATB settings, one in D minor (1907) and one in F major (1945); Paul Spicer’s choice falls on the latter. The F major canticles were composed for Hereford Cathedral and in his Dyson biography Spicer describes them as “one of the gentlest and most lyrical settings of the evening canticles in the repertory”. There’s a genuinely feminine feel to the music; the Magnificat is almost unassuming. The feminine quality is given additional emphasis by two soprano solos, one at the very beginning and one to introduce the ‘Glory be’. The soloist here is Isabella Abbot Parker and she makes a lovely, pure sound. The whole performance is a delight. Herbert Howells’ Magnificat, written for Chichester Cathedral in 1967, stands in sharp contrast to the serenity of Dyson’s setting. Spicer tells us that world events troubled Howells greatly in the 1960s and the music in this Magnificat has a really unsettled feel to it. To Howells’ trademark rich chromatic language is added a strong seasoning of dissonance. Listening to it, I’m put in mind of the composer’s Stabat Mater (1959-65). This set of canticles is, Spicer says, one of Howells’ least performed and I can understand why; it’s no reflection on the quality of the music but it challenges both performers and listeners. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive piece and the present performance is equally impressive.

I mentioned there are three recorded premieres on the programme. Before discussing them, I want to mention two other pieces, both of them gentle and delightful. Healey Willan emigrated from the UK to Canada in 1913 and spent the rest of his life there; he was a prominent figure in that country’s musical life, both as an organist and conductor and also as a composer. My knowledge of his music is limited almost entirely to his finely crafted church music. I beheld her, beautiful as a dove is a good example of his art. The text is quite sensuous and the purity of the music complements the words effectively. It’s a concise, affecting piece and here it’s sung with sensitivity. Pierre Villette’s Hymne ŕ la Vierge is his best-known work and a little gem. The harmonic language is sensual and so French. In this performance Paul Spicer follows the composer’s suggestion that the second of its three verses be sung by a solo soprano with the rest of the choir humming in the background. I can’t recall hearing it performed in this fashion before but I think it works really well, all the more so because the soloist, Imogen Russell has such a lovely warm tone.

The first of the three pieces which are new to disc is Carl Rütti’s Ave Maria. This is a very different take on the text as compared to Bruckner’s. The rhythms are a bit quirky, especially in the organ part, and one notes the influence of jazz and blues pointed out by Paul Spicer in his notes. It’s an interesting piece, which I liked. I’ve often admired Judith Bingham’s choral music. As a one-time professional singer herself, she has a fine understanding of vocal writing. In Ave virgo sanctissima (2011) the textures give the music a timeless, across-the-ages feel. It’s a very fine piece and the RBCCC singers give it an auspicious recorded debut. The last piece on their programme is by another British composer whose music has often impressed me. Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose is a carol, setting a fourteenth century English text. Most of the time the music is exuberant and its dance-like quality is irresistible. The present performance is full of rhythmic energy and vitality. It’s a super short piece and it makes a joyful conclusion to this programme.

Once again, Paul Spicer has put together a discerning and interesting programme which he and his young choir have delivered stylishly. The choir makes a very attractive, well blended sound and their singing is committed, polished and accomplished. I enjoyed the disc from start to finish. In the pieces which have organ accompaniment the choir benefits from the excellent support of Callum Alger. He’s an alumnus of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and is currently the Organ Scholar of Westminster Cathedral.

As usual with a SOMM disc, production values are high. Though I voiced a mild reservation about the way the first track had been recorded, in all other respects Paul Arden-Taylor has done a first-rate job. The choir is recorded with admirable clarity but with a pleasing sense of the acoustic of the church around their sound. Balance between choir and organ is excellent. Paul Spicer’s notes are valuable and the documentation as a whole is comprehensive.

As I write this review, in June 2020, the UK lockdown caused by Covid-19 has kept all choirs silent for some three months and there seems no immediate prospect of choral music resuming. We must hope that progress in suppressing the virus will be made to such an extent that choirs can resume their activities before long. If the suspension of choral activities extends into the new academic year, starting in September, that’s bound to impact the work of ensembles such as the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. I hope very much that this won’t happen and that SOMM will be able to record them again very soon. In the meantime, this excellent disc will serve to remind us all of what we are currently missing.

John Quinn

Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013) Mother of God, here I stand [3:15]
Nicholas LUDFORD (1485-1577) Ave cujus conception [8:24]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Ave Maria [2:49]
Martin DALBY (1942-2018) Mater salutaris [4:42]
Ola GJEILO (b 1978) Second Eve [6:00]
Sir George DYSON (1883-1964) Magnificat in F [3:33]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Rosa Mystica (from AMDG) [4:24]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Magnificat (Chichester Service) [7:24]
Carl RÜTTI (b 1949) Ave Maria [3:12]
Healey WILLAN (1880-1968) I beheld her, beautiful as a dove [2:16]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) Ave virgo sanctissima [5:08]
Pierre VILETTE (1926-1998) Hymne ŕ la Vierge [4:01]
Trond KVERNO (b.1945) Ave maris stella [5:06]
Cecilia McDOWALL (b 1951) Of a Rose [2:24]

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