Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Music for the Queen of Heaven: Marian Consort in 20th & 21st century music

Music for the Queen of Heaven - Marian Consort - Delphian
Gabriel Jackson, Judith Weir, Herbert Howells, Andrzej Panufnik, Cecilia McDowall, Matthew Martin, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Hilary Campbell, Stephen Dodgson, Roxanna Panufnik, Lennox Berkeley, James McMillan; The Marian Consort; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 24 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Contemporary Marian anthems in fine performances from this vocal ensemble

The Marian Consort, director Rory McCleery, is best known for its work in Early Music but like many such groups it also performs and commissions new music. On this lovely disc from Delphian, Music for the Queen of Heaven, the consort performs a selection of contemporary (and near contemporary) music themed on the Virgin Mary with works by Gabriel Jackson, Judith Weir, Herbert Howells, Andrzej Panufnik, Cecilia McDowall, Matthew Martin, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Hilary Campbell, Stephen Dodgson, Roxanna Panufnik, Lennox Berkeley and James McMillan.

The disc uses a pool of nine singers performing one to a part, with the maximum (in the first and last pieces) being eight and the majority of works being with six singers. Some of the earlier music on the disc was originally written for choral forces and this reduction re-focuses in fascinating way.

We start with Gabriel Jackson's Salve Regina, a mainly homophonic setting of the Marian antiphon which showcases Jackson's gorgeous harmony. The performance from the eight singers is clear, with the rich chords finely placed. This is followed by Judith Weir's setting of another of the Marian antiphons, Ave Regina Coelorum. Here Weir's mobile textures contrast fast and slow phrases, with an interestingly angular feel to both the melodic lines and harmony, and the group brings out the polyphony with great clarity.

We return to the Salve Regina with Herbert Howells' lovely early setting.
Written for Westminster Cathedral Choir it comes over very differently sung by just singers, who are joined by soprano Anna Dennis for the solo. Again there is beautiful clarity here, and moments of great intensity but I missed the feeling of choral weight and in the solo, though Dennis is highly expressive, I missed the boyish purity. Another choral piece follows, Andrzej Panufnik's outstanding Song to the Virgin Mary, a setting of an old Polish hymn text. Panufnik starts with just a single line, here a single voice, cool and clean almost an invocation, then gradually other voices join. There is an hypnotic, austere beauty to the piece (and a complexity too, it is a tricky piece to sing), and the whole builds as Panufnik creates multiple layers of sound, permeated by his particular use of major/minor to create bitter-sweet tonality. This is a big piece, and an impressive achievement from the six singers.

Cecilia McDowell's Alma redemptoris mater was written for the group. Using six voices again, McDowell creates a hypnotic feel with her use of multiple overlapping lines exploring similar material, and with the distinctive ornamentation in the voices the influence of Gaelic psalm singing does not seem far away. In his setting of Ave Virgo sanctissima Matthew Martin creates a dark, intense sound-world which is off-set by the sheer luminosity for the repeated 'Maria'. An intense piece.

Commissioned by the group in 2016, Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Gaude et laetare is a real tour-de-force. It uses multiple, highly rhythmic lines to create a vivid texture and the group's performance drives on with amazing rhythmic energy. Another commission, from 2012, is Hilary Campbell's Ave Maria, which is notable for its lovely translucent textures and luminous ending.

Stephen Dodgson's Dormi Jesu, is quietly concentrated, a little gem. Roxanna Panufnik's Magnificat opens with a wonderfully big, bold choral gesture. The work was written for the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music in 2014 at St Pancras Church. With its exploration of contemporary unaccompanied polyphony the work is a long way from the more traditional Anglican settings for choir and organ influenced by Herbert Howells' evening services, and it is full of lively textures and fascinating details.  Lennox Berkeley's Regina coeli, laetare is lyrical and engaging with some nicely spiky harmonies.

The disc ends with James MacMillan's Ave maris stella, which was premiered by Truro Cathedral Choir in 2011. The piece is a slow steady invocation, rarely rising above quiet and setting the text mainly homophonically in a way which makes each change in harmony really tell.

This is an impressive disc, the group brings a lovely purity and clarity to these contemporary pieces, creating some really beautiful textures. The placing of the harmonies is beautifully done, making the single voices really count. The bigger choral pieces are surprisingly successful in these re-inventions, and the disc is not only a great showpiece for the ensemble but for the liveliness of contemporary British sacred music.

Gabriel Jackson - Salve Regina
Judith Weir - Ave Regina Coelorum
Herbert Howells - Salve Regina
Andrzej Panufnik - Song to the Virgin Mary
Cecilia McDowall - Alma Redemptoris Mater
Matthew Martin - Ave virgo sanctissima
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Gaude et laetare
Hilary Campbell - Ave Maria
Stephen Dodgson - Dormi Jesu
Roxanna Panufnik - Magnificat (St Pancras Service)
Lennox Berkeley - Regina coeli, laetare
James MacMillan - Ave maris stella
Marian Consort (Charlotte Ashley, Cecilia Osmon, Rory McCleery, Hannah Cooke, Alex Chance, Guy Cutting, Thomas Kelley, Lawrence White, Nick Ashby)
Recorded 10-12 January 2017, St Michael's Church, Highgate
DELPHIAN DCD34190 1CD [59.31]
Available from Amazon.


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