Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Tavener, Ludford, Bruckner, Britten, Howells, Dyson, Villette, Willan, Carl Rütti, Judith Bingham, Cecilia McDowall, Ola Gjeilo and Trond Kverno
Callum Alger (organ), Isabella Abbott Parker, Imogen Russell (soprano); Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0617 62:45 mins
The programme concept here is a familiar choral conductor’s standby, music in honour of the Virgin Mary: but the selection is anything but hackneyed. The English Renaissance, usually a happy Marian hunting-ground, is represented only by Nicholas Ludford’s fine ‘Ave cujus conceptio’, and the whole of the Romantic era only by Bruckner’s sonorous ‘Ave Maria’. Of later composers from Continental Europe, there’s the very French Pierre Villette, the less conspicuously Norwegian Ola Gjeilo and Trond Kverno, and the lightly bluesy and not obviously Swiss Carl Rütti. There are two English Magnificats, the tender Dyson in F and the impressively wide-ranging one in Herbert Howells’s Chichester Service; and from a far outpost of Anglicanism there’s a motet by the Canadian Healey Willan. Highly personal glosses on the English tradition are offered by Britten’s rhythmically insistent ‘Rosa mystica’ (from the 1939 cycle A.M.D.G.), a characteristic snippet of John Tavener, the Scot Martin Dalby’s gentle ‘Mater salutaris’, Judith Bingham’s harmonically imaginative ‘Ave virgo sanctissima’ and Cecilia MacDowall’s ‘Of a Rose’, the lively dancing rhythms of which provide a refreshing end to a predominantly devotional programme.
The experienced choral director Paul Spicer is an ideal advocate of this varied repertoire, in both his interpretations and his booklet notes. The glory of his Birmingham student choir is its soprano section, soaring freely with pure tone, and often leaving the lower voices somewhat in the shade – an effect heightened by a generous church acoustic. But this is a minor reservation about an adventurous and rewarding anthology.