Time and again in this profoundly sentient collection of Marian compositions the Gabrieli Consort effectively bypass the whole self-oriented notion of 'performance', drawing the listener into what, in many of these pieces, is essentially a process of prayer through music. Josquin Desprez's "Ave Regina, virgo serena" is a good example, one voice-part unravelling liquidly from another, dynamics modulated by a seemingly natural ebb and flow of feeling, the imprecatory conclusion ('O mother of God, remember me') touching earth softly as a drifting feather. Similar qualities inform the serene, sensual "Nesciens Mater" of Renaissance French composer Jean Mouton, and Taverner's "A Hymn to the Mother of God" . . . James MacMillan's superbly dramatic "Seinte Mari Moder Milde" is in places fiercely, burningly imprecatory in its impact. It's magnificently sung here by the Gabrieli Consort, whom Paul McCreesh directs with passion and dedication throughout a CD I have no hesitation in labelling essential.
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BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. January 2009
The cathedral's expansive atmosphere enhances the effect of the mingling sonorities in Tavener's opulent, slow-moving "A Hymn to the Mother of God". Equally, Giles Swayne's exuberant setting of the "Magnificat" capitalises on individual vocal parts that resonate pointedly. The earliest item here is the anonymous 15th-century "There is no Rose of Swych Vertu", sung with purity and serenity. Pinnacles of Renaissance art such as Josquin's "Ave Maria, virgo serena", Palestrina's "Stabat Mater" and the solemn, sumptuous "Nesciens Mater" by the French master Jean Mouton, create pools of intense, quietly voiced piety. MacMillan's "Seinte Mari Moder Milde", a dramatic fusion of medieval references with modern harmonic principles is complemented by another recent classic, Adès's "The Fayrfax Carol". The intervening historical period is represented by Grieg's exquisitely restrained "Ave Maris Stella", Herbert Howell's gorgeous "A Spotless Rose" and Bax's broad, rhapsodic "Mater ora filium", with Henryk Górecki's hypnotic "Totus tuus" ending the sequence. Sung throughout with sensitivity to style, this themed programme reveals the reverence and the rapture the Virgin Mary has inspired in music over the centuries.
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The Daily Telegraph (London) / 23. February 2009
It's a tremendously rewarding sequence, some 13 items in all spanning no fewer than 600 years, and so cannily programmed that temporal and stylistic boundaries shift and sometimes evaporate altogether . . . There can be nothing but praise for the breathtaking assurance and responsiveness of McCreesh's singers throughout . . . the sound is as atmospheric and voluptuous as can be imagined . . . this is indeed a glorious CD.
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Gramophone (London) / 01. March 2009
This is a collection which is genuinely timeless. Hugely impressive.
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International Record Review (London) / 01. June 2009
Herausgekommen ist eine so originelle wie stimmige, makellos schön vorgetragene Vokalsammlung.
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Die Welt (Berlin) / 01. April 2009
. . . échafaudant une polyphonie pleine de grâce et de quiétude ("Ave Maria, virgo serena"), l'Annonciation avec un Stravinsky tout en souplesse et simplicité ("Ave Maria"). La joie de la Nativité est grande quand elle entre en résonance avec le "Nesciens Mater" de Mouton. Palestrina, lui, évoque par un double choeur la pleine d'une mère face à la crucifixion de son fils ("Stabat mater"). Enfin Marie prie pour les hommes dans la touchante lumière nordique de Grieg ("Ave maris stella") . . . Le Gabrieli Consort donne une indéniable cohérence à l'ensemble . . . des basses solides voir épaisses, des ténors et altos clairs, des sopranos excessivement éthérées . . .
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Diapason (Paris) / 01. April 2009
Meditations on the Mysteries of Mary
Hail holy queen, mother of mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,
To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate
Your eyes of mercy toward us.
And after this, our exile,
Show us the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
“O sweet Virgin Mary" - in this short phrase is encapsulated the overwhelming, burning fervency of devotion to Mary, the Blessed Virgin and Mother of God. Virgo Maria - a woman who, through the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, is without sin; a figure graced with divinity who redeems the fall of Eve, yet at the same time manifests a completely human fragility and tenderness; the mother of an infant who must later suffer to see her son die a criminal. These varied images of Mary, divine and pure yet intensely human, have captured a special place in the minds and prayers of the faithful since the earliest years of the Christian era, from which time depictions of her have been found adorning catacomb walls. Her importance and popularity as an object of devotion increased steadily until a sudden burgeoning of her cult in the 11th and 12th centuries raised Mary's status to that of a pre-eminent symbol and figurehead of the medieval church. Her role was one of Intercessor or Mediatrix between the human and the divine, an advocate for the faithful, beseeching God for the saving of their souls and deliverance from damnation. She was paid universal homage: cathedrals, churches and shrines by the hundreds were dedicated to her; countless prayers were addressed to her; painters and sculptors vied for her most perfect depiction in thousands of Annunciations, Nativities, Pietàs and Madonnas; whole genres of sacred poetry sprang up in her praise; and composers saved their most extraordinary and heartfelt music for their motets in honour of the “Virgo Sanctissima".
Like the figure of Mary herself, Marian art holds a particular fascination - as if the same central Mystery that characterizes the nature of Mary herself is manifest in the paintings and music made in her honour. Sacred, pure, unattainable, these images of perfection also ache with human, sensual, even erotic impulses (as one strives to create an image of ideal feminine beauty . . . ). The greatest Marian art is caught magically in this tension between the human and the divine; the present collection, gathering together Marian music spanning 600 years, seeks to illuminate this mystery. Paul McCreesh writes: “My intention was to create a sort of musical book of the liturgy of the Hours - a collection of private meditations highlighting the key events of Mary's life. Like the Book of Hours, it would consist of works intended for metaphysical reflection: for revealing and commenting on the ineffable." The programme is grouped into five sections: the first, Ave Regina Coelorum, is an invocation to Mary, the following three treat the Annunciation, Nativity and Crucifixion respectively, and the final one reflects on Mary's role as Intercessor for the faithful.
Ave Regina Coelorum - John Tavener's A Hymn to the Mother of God opens the programme, a solemn and spacious work reflecting the majesty of the Virgin, in whom “all creation rejoices". The outer sections, in which the choir is disposed as two gigantic sound masses resounding against each other in strict canon, frame a more reflective middle section. Josquin's celebrated four-voice Ave Maria, virgo serena is both intimate and restrained. Josquin's remarkable concision of expression, affecting an almost artless simplicity, gives the work a special sincerity, from the opening sequence of entries (each voice solemnly greeting Mary one by one) to the final, meltingly simple prayer: “O mother of God, remember me."
Angelus ad Virginem - Through very different means, Stravinsky's setting of the Ave Maria achieves an artlessness similar to Josquin's and a sense of universal rather than personal prayer. A sinuous, chant-like melody line is harmonized very simply to create a touchingly understated short masterpiece. McCreesh writes: “Restricted melodic patterns, formal economy, discipline and homophonic textures reflect Stravinsky's awareness of Eastern Marian iconography. A completely different approach is that of Giles Swayne: the motoric pulsation of his first Magnificat, setting Mary's song of praise after the Annunciation, draws more on African tribal rites than on the European tradition."
Ave Mater Christi - “The most beautiful of all Marian allegories" McCreesh continues, “is that of the rose, symbolizing everything pure and immaculate. But, at the same time, it is the object of our desire - a flesh-and-blood woman." Mouton's Nesciens Mater meditates on the joyful mystery of Jesus' birth, and here the perfection of Mary, the Rose, finds a correspondence in the structure of the work itself: its eight parts disclose a complex quadruple canon, a material perfection in the very nature of the music. After so rarefied a beauty, the medieval English carol Ther is no rose of swych vertu provides refreshment in its lilting three-voice refrains. Howells's A Spotless Rose is a small masterpiece of early 20th-century English church music, evoking in its gently undulating melodic sweep the image of a rose caressed by a soft breeze and, at the end of the work, the shiver of the “cold winter's night". Adès's The Fayrfax Carol is a bittersweet nativity scene shot through with forebodings of Christ's Passion and death, springing from an opening figure which combines a rocking lullaby rhythm with a falling melodic sequence suggestive of weeping and lamentation.
Juxta crucem lacrimosa - The anguish of a mother witnessing her son's death, intimated in the Adès, is fully realized in Palestrina's grave, double-choir setting of the Stabat Mater sequence. This great medieval poem, depicting Mary's sorrow at the foot of the Cross, concludes with a prayer to Mary for intercession. In connecting her human suffering with ours, it reaches to the very heart of Mary's significance to the faithful, a significance realized with stark power in Palestrina's work.
Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis - Pain and anguish are also strongly projected in the vehement cries of MacMillan's Seinte Mari Moder Milde. The text, another medieval English lyric, is an impassioned plea to Mary to “be myn help that I ne fall". Both Grieg's Ave Maris Stella and Bax's Mater ora filium capture a similar sense of yearning, though in a rather more succulent harmonic vein: Grieg luscious but brief, Bax expansively rhapsodic, treating the huge choir in a virtuosic and decidedly orchestral manner. The musical Book of Hours ends with Górecki's Totus tuus. McCreesh writes: “Totus tuus is a work that can be understood by anyone, regardless of nationality or religious background. Its hypnotic power is almost impossible to resist - we cannot help being immersed in the transcendence. It is this total sublimation to the love of the Virgin that is at the heart of so much Marian worship throughout the centuries."
Stabat Mater (8vv) (transcribed & edited by Jon Dixon)