Rosa Mystica. Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Rosa Mystica: Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir
Paul Spicer conductor, Callum Alger organ,
Somm, SOMMCD 0617. 62’45

This recording from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir presents a wide variety of musical portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary, covering composers from the early 16th-century to the present day. It takes its title from Benjamin Britten’s setting of a Jesuit text by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Programmed in far from chronological order, it opens in 2003 with John Tavener’s hushed Mother of God, here I stand, an extract from his seven-hour long Veil of the Temple, before retreating several centuries back to Nicholas Ludford’s large-scale Tudor motet Ave cujus conception. Another musical leap takes us to Bruckner and his 1861 Ave Maria. 

A central group of 20th-century British-born composers include George Dyson and Herbert Howells, both with Magnificats (‘post-war’ & Chichester 1967 – both reflecting the composers’ response to troubled times), the Britten Rosa Mystica, and Healey Willan’s I beheld her, beautiful as a dove, setting an 8th-century text for the Office of Our Lady. More recent British composers are Martin Dalby with his 1981 Mater salutaris, a commission from Glasgow High School, Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose and Judith Bingham’s 2011 Ave virgo sanctissima, composed for an American church, but in rich harmonies reminiscent of 20th-century French music.

Added to the list of otherwise predominantly British composers are Pierre Villette, a pupil of Maurice Duruflé, and his sensuously slithery Hymne à la Vierge (which, perhaps appropriately, follows Judith Bingham’s Ave virgo sanctissima), the jazz and blues-influenced Ave Maria by Carl Rütti, Trond Kverno’s atmospheric setting of Ave Maris Stella and Ole Gjeilo’s Second Eve, composed in 2012 and the most recent composition. There are five living composers represented, and three of the pieces are premiere recordings.

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir are directed by Paul Spicer, a conducting teacher at the Conservatoire.  They are joined for three pieces by organist Callum Alger. It was recorded in the church of  St. Alban the Martyr in Birmingham, a resonant acoustic with a stable afterglow. The size of the choir is not given, or the names, apart from two soprano soloists Isabella Abbot Parker and Imogen Russell, but they sound a fairly substantial group – I would guess somewhere around 25-35 strong. They make an attractive and cohesive sound.

As important as a recording like this might be to listeners, the experience of the young singers of such a wide range of repertoire will hopefully prove to be an inspirational experience. The full programme is below –

John Tavener Mother of God, here I stand
Nicholas Ludford Ave cujus conceptio
Anton Bruckner Ave Maria
Martin Dalby Mater salutaris 
Ola Gjeilo Second Eve
George Dyson  Magnificat in F 
Benjamin Britten  Rosa Mystica
Herbert Howells Magnificat (Chichester Service)
Carl Rütti  Ave Maria
Healey Willan  I beheld her, beautiful as a dove
Judith Bingham  Ave virgo sanctissima
Pierre Villette  Hymne à la Vierge
Trond Kverno  Ave maris stella
Cecilia McDowall Of a Rose