Monday, April 21, 2008

Ghost Stories

A Mother's Love: Music for Mary
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Universal Classics & Jazz, UCJ 476 6295
  • Grieg: Ave Maris Stella
  • Cornysh: Ave Maria Mater Dei
  • Josquin: Gaude Virgo Mater Christi
  • Bruckner: Tota Pulchra Es, Maria (Antiphon)
  • Saint-Saens: Ave Maria
  • Britten: A Hymn To The Virgin
  • Mendelssohn: Ave Maria
  • Obrecht: Salve Regina
  • Rizza: Ave Generosa (World Premiere recording)
  • Anon: (Mediaeval) Alma Redemptoris Mater
  • Faure: Ave Maria
  • Palestrina: Sicut Lilium Inter Spinas
  • Liszt: Ave Maris Stella
  • Elgar: Ave Maria
  • Durufle: Tota Pulchra Es, Maria
  • Plainsong: Salve Regina
  • Lassus: Salve Regina

Here is yet another of London's fabulous vocal ensembles, The Sixteen. Formed by conductor Harry Christophers in 1977, it draws for its members from the choirs of Oxford and Cambridge. They have concentrated over the years on English polyphony, but have also dabbled in a much wider range of music, from the Italian Renaissance up into the 21st Century.

This present release gathers together the musical thoughts of a range of composers about the maypole of the West's favorite matronly construct of mythology, the Virgin Mary. The emotional hand-wringing of the world's religions have incontrovertibly provided fodder--or at least a focusing mechanism--for musical art; truth be told, I was actually eager to see what variations on the theme of saintly motherhood were managed by some of these represented composers, as I had already in my collection a number of lovely pieces of the same cast. Brahms, Morten Lauridsen, Mendelssohn, Langlais and, especially, Gabriel Fauré were already onboard with some fabulous entries; and here was an opportunity to hear from Brucker, William Cornyshe, Britten, Saint-Saens and Liszt, among others.

The pieces, as one might expect, all have a certain relaxed quality, being all serenely tonal and not too militantly polyphonic. The earliest composers--William Cornyshe or Jacob Obrecht--sound antique to our ears, jagged and meandering. By the time we get to Fauré, Mendelssohn and Bruckner we find ourselves squarely in mainstream 19th Century Classical mode, and Margaret Rizza brings us right up to present day with the premier recording of her Ave Generosa, which sounds at times a bit like the tintinnabulum sounds of Estonian Arvo Part. The CD's organizing theme is not so structured as to guarantee absolute unity of style, but the album holds together as a concept reasonably well.

I have a number of recordings of The Sixteen, and their performances are always stylistically coherent and unimpeachably competent technically. In contrast to some other chamber choirs who specialize on this Renaissance and post-Renaissance material, The Sixteen sound to employ different singing styles depending on the exact period of the material. Early material will typically be sung without much vibrato (excepting the solo voices), whereas Romantic period pieces are often sung with a fuller texture. I cannot fault them for this approach--indeed, far be it from me to second-guess a scholar like Harry Christophers--but my own ear always recoils from the use of vibrato with singing except in very rare and special circumstances. Particularly with solo voices or the high soprano lines, the vibrato here can take on an almost operatic quality that, for me, throws a damp rag on things right quick. So my reservations here carry the caveat of my pointed personal preference; anyone not objecting to this use of vibrato in a choral setting will likely thrill at these performances.

The recording is fairly close and in a medium-dry acoustic.

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