22 Aug 2020

Rosa mystica: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir

As Paul Spicer, conductor of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, observes, the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary is as ‘old as Christianity itself’, and programmes devoted to settings of texts which venerate the Virgin Mary are commonplace.

To distinguish this venture, Rosa Mystica: musical portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the crowds, in curating and recording the repertory presented Spicer professes to have aimed to achieve temporal, geographical and musical diversity: ‘to demonstrate something of the range of styles which have inspired composers from the 16th to the 21st centuries’ and to present a ‘truly international offering’. In fact, only two of the fourteen compositions presented date from before the 20 th century, four are by living composers, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are entirely neglected. Six works are by composers who were born outside the UK, though several studied in London or were immersed in English liturgical traditions. However, if the ‘premise’ is a little shaky, the quality of the performances certainly is not, and there is stylistic variety which confirms the personal nature of faith, and the individual manner of expression of spiritual hope and consolation, within broadly shared theological parameters.

The earliest Marian setting that Rosa Mystica presents is Ave cujus conceptio by Nicholas Ludford (1485-1557). Ludford, who served at St Stephen’s chapel of Westminster Palace from c.1520 until the Royal Chapel was dissolved in 1547, is not one of the best-known of the Tudor polyphonists, but this large-scale prayer-motet which sets a five-verse text based on the Corporal Joys of Our Lady - her Conception, Nativity, Annunciation, Purification and Assumption - suggests that he should be. From the first stanza, the interplay of high voices is aspiring and adventurous; then the lower voices take over. There’s a palpable alertness and vivacity in this recording. The individual lines are muscular and finely sculpted; collectively, the rich web spins fecundly. The acoustic is not especially resonant, and this means that we hear vocal entries and points of imitation, as if set in relief. Yet, there is a luminosity too: the melismatic threads shine. Spicer sustains the momentum and the culminating cadences throb with fervent belief.

Spicer and his singers then leap forward more than 300 years to Bruckner’s Ave Maria of 1861. Bruckner wrote three settings of this text: the first was composed in 1856 when Bruckner was living and working at the St Florian’s monastery; the final setting was for solo low voice, in 1881. The seven-voice 1861 setting employs a modal style which reaches back to Ludford and his fellow Renaissance musicians. Spicer encourages his singers to emphasise the antiphonal nature of the setting - presumably designed to exploit the acoustic in Linz Cathedral, where Bruckner was organist from 1855 to 1868. The initial exchanges are quite gentle but the repetitions, “Jesus”, build to a fervent cry of glowing radiance, and this leads to a shimmering, soaring soundscape, “Sancta Maria”, which is carefully guided back down to earth. The concluding “Amen” diminishes confidently, its collective consolation unwaveringly confirmed.

There’s a very English focus when Spicer turns to the 20th century. Healey Willan (1880-1968) may have served as precentor at the Anglo-Catholic parish of St Mary Magdalene in Toronto from 1921-68, but he was born in England, began his musical training at eight years old at St Saviour's Choir School in Eastbourne, subsequently worked as organist and choirmaster at several churches in London, and was for ten years organist and choirmaster of St John the Baptist Church on Holland Road in London, before emigrating to Canada in 1913. ‘I beheld her, beautiful as a dove’ (1928) was the first of three motets for the Feast of Our Lady which Willan composed in 1928-29. It is a two-minute masterpiece, the purity of the unaccompanied SATB setting being enhanced by the narrow confines of the vocal lines (the soprano encompasses an octave and does not rise above e’’). Spicer makes each textual phrase a naturally exhaling breath, the triplets coursing easily and the cadences coming to comforting rest.

Benjamin Britten gives the disc its title. Rosa Mystica, one of the seven movements of A.M.D.G. (Ad majorem Dei Gloriam) which set text by Gerald Manley Hopkins, was one of the first works that Britten composed having decamped to the US in 1939. Originally intended for performance by a quartet Peter Pears planned to establish in London, named the ‘Round Table Singers’ - it remained unperformed during Britten’s lifetime. A.M.D.G. was finally heard in 1984 and published in 1989. In his Britten Choral Guide , Spicer declares: ‘These pieces are seriously demanding and each one presents new challenges. The choir that can perform the complete score successfully is confident, ambitious, has a good sense of humour, and has sopranos and tenors capable of high tessitura work. It helps too if the conductor is something of an amateur psychologist who can interpret these sometimes tortured poems in the light of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Jesuit affiliation (the title is the motto of the Jesuit order), Britten’s homosexuality and his deep attachment to his mother.’ Well, if that’s quite a lot to take on, the RBCCC are more than up to the task: there’s a dizzying ‘waltz’-feel to the pedal-point ostinato which - meditative and magical - spins the other voices in parallel thirds, questing and ever more impassioned.

If Rosa Mystica had to wait over forty years for its first performance, Sir George Dyson’s Magnificats are some of the most performed in the choral repertoire. Spicer selects the second of Dyson’s settings, written just after WW2 for Hereford Cathedral. The balance between Isabella Abbot Parker’s soprano solo and Callum Alger’s sturdy organ chords is not ideal, though the full ATB singers fare better against a sparser accompaniment. Perhaps, though, the solo voice conveys human vulnerability and the collective voices overcome doubt? Spicer’s forward-moving tempo communicates purposefulness and the concluding cadence is confirmative and certain.

The same cannot be said for Herbert Howell’s Magnificat setting of 1967, for Chichester Cathedral: there’s a fragility and unrooted-ness - the chromatic shiftings of the opening bars, the asymmetrical phrases which never seem to find their home base, the grainy vocal colours which refuse to coalesce into affirmative hues - which reflect the world issues which, as his letters and diaries attest, troubled Howells at this time: the Cuban missile crisis, proliferating nuclear weapons, the assassination of J.F. Kennedy. There is beauty, too, though, as Spicer and his singers confirm, even if it is of a haunting and troubling kind. And, as the soprano voices begin to ascend, and pedal points and a stronger bass line appear in the organ, a confidence accrues; perhaps man can, after all, overcome, transcend. The surge towards, and the uplift from, the final shining cadence is indeed stirring. Martin Dalby (1942-2018) was a Scot who studied composition with Howells at the RCM. Mater Salutaris, was commissioned by Glasgow High School and first performed 1981. The RBCCC capture the devotional wholesomeness of this simple but effective carol.

We move from British shores with Hymne à la Vierge (1954/55) by Pierre Villette (1926-98). Though he was a classmate of Pierre Boulez at the Conservatoire National Supérieure de Musique, Villette eschewed the radicalism of French modernism and instead furthered the musical language of his predecessors, Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc. Spicer communicates the fervent, even sensual, religiosity of Hymne à la Vierge, flourishing through the repeated ‘alleluias’ of the chorus, from which Imogen Russell’s second-verse soprano solo (with choral hum) offers a soothing retreat. The harmonies of the coda are surprisingly jazz-inflected, an incandescent afterglow. Similarly, after a long and somewhat heavy-footed organ preamble, Ave Maria (1993) by Swiss composer Carl Rütti (b. 1949) seems to aspire towards bluesy harmonies and irregular rhythms: I find the result ponderous, but that’s not the fault of Spicer and his singers. Norwegian Trond Kverno (b.1945) composed Ave Maris Stella in 1976. It begins with hymn-like homophony, develops into vigorous polyphony and accelerates through invigorating soundscapes: to my ears, it soars where Rütti plods and the RBCCC are fittingly light of foot, creating a breathless intensity before subsiding into the serenity of the close.

John Tavener’s prayer, Mother of God, here I stand (a short extract from the seven-hour The Veil of the Temple, 2003) is a gentle supplication, sung with soft tenderness, the voices blending warmly and lovingly. Norwegian Ola Gjeilo (b.1978) studied at the RCM in London’s and in the US at the Juilliard School. Second Eve (2012) suggests Tavener’s influence in its combination of simple homophony and rich harmonies which exploit modal resonances. It receives a beautifully lyrical and vibrantly coloured interpretation here, never ‘wallowing’, always searching and reaching forwards. The full-voiced concluding sections are thrillingly urgent and reverberant. In 2011, St Thomas the Apostle Catholic church in Los Angeles commissioned Judith Bingham (b.1952) to compose Ave Virgo Sanctissima, which sets text by Prudentius (b.348AD), sSt Ambroise (c.337-397) and an anonymous writer. The interplay of the vocal lines is lucidly defined, and the result is a rich palette of fine textures and a complex but ardent religiosity.

The disc’s final item brings together past and present. Cecilia McDowall (b.1951) composed Of a rose in 1993. It sets an anonymous 14 th-century text in lilting, springing dance-like phrases, which the RBCCC sing with an excited hush which blossoms into a dazzling “Alleluia!” The young singers make this a lovely celebratory, joyous close.

Diversity is united by theme, and by stylistic, personal and spiritual threads which connect across time and continents. This is a terrific disc which will bring much pleasure.

Claire Seymour