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A Spotless Rose
John Tavener (b.1944)
Hymn to the Mother of God [3:32]
Josquin Des Pres (c.1450–c.1521)
Ave Maria (4vv) [7:03]
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Ave Maria [2:13]
Giles Swayne (b.1946)
1 [3:54]

Jean Mouton (1459-1522)
Nesciens Mater virgo virum - motet: 8vv [5:43] 
Ther is no rose of swych vertu [4:56]

Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
A Spotless Rose [3:37]
Thomas Adès (b.1971)
The Fayrax Carol [4:24]

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525–c.1594)
Stabat Mater
(8vv) (transcribed & edited by Jon Dixon) [10:52]

James MacMillan (b.1959)
Seinte Mari moder milde [7:05]   

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Ave Maris Stella (Vesper Hymn c.9th century) (edited by John Rutter) [3:23]
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Mater ora filium [12:07]

Henryk GÓrecki (b.1933)
Totus Tuus, Op.60 [11:36]

Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, UK, 19-21 July 2007 DDD
Booklet with texts and translations


Experience Classicsonline

I normally try to avoid seeing what anyone else has written before I make up my mind about a recording. However, in this case, I can’t be unaware of the acclaim which this disc has already received as a successful follow-up to the same performers’ Road to Paradise (4776605) which Dominy Clements made Recording of the Month in July, 2007 – see review.  That earlier CD was linked by the theme of the pilgrimage from life to death and resurrection. The theme of this new recording is praise of the Virgin Mary, the Spotless Rose of the title and of the Herbert Howells piece which forms its centre-point.

At first sight, the programme looks like something of a mish-mash, with early and mature polyphony interspersed among music by twentieth-century and contemporary composers, but it works surprisingly well – very well, indeed.  Most of the music is quietly contemplative – indeed, I might have welcomed one or two other pieces like Giles Swayne’s Magnificat (tr.4) or the outbursts in Macmillan’s Seinte Mari (tr.10) – and much of it might well be described as timeless. 

The Stravinsky Ave Maria, in particular, seems almost to have been composed out of time.  No-one could ever quite mistake his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto for music from the period of the Brandenburgs which inspired it, but one might almost mistake this Ave Maria for something by a 16th-century composer. 

The opening Tavener Hymn to the Mother of God, too, though unmistakably a product of our own times, is demonstrably part of a tradition which dates back to his own distant ancestor with a further -r- in his name and beyond. The traditional setting of the fifteenth-century carol Ther is no rose (tr.6) and the following Howells’ setting of an English translation of Es ist ein’Ros entsprugen (tr.7) fit as well together as they would (and do) in the Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s.  Adès’s setting of The Fayrfax Carol which follows (tr.8), fits well into the King’s Christmas Eve Service, too. 

Part of the reason for the timeless quality of the music is the fact that the more recent composers are setting texts of some antiquity, Ave Maria and the Magnificat dating back to Luke’s gospel, while most of the other texts in English or Latin date back to the Middle Ages.  Seinte Mari, Moder milde, which Macmillan sets (track 10), is one of the earliest Middle English lyrics.  This setting of a text from a 13th-century manuscript, where it is attributed to St Godric, was composed for the Nine Lessons and Carols – it’s probably the most angular music ever performed there or on this CD, but it fits in very well for all that.  Having recently been impressed by hearing his St John Passion (LSO Live 0671 – look out for a review in my April, 2009, Download Roundup) I’m beginning to warm to Macmillan’s music. Though I’m not normally unduly sympathetic to contemporary composers, Seinte Mari is little more avant garde than Bax’s Mater ora filium two tracks later. 

Adès’ Fayrfax Carol and Macmillan’s Seinte Mari have been recorded by Stephen Cleobury with King’s Choir (On Christmas Day: New Music from King’s, an inexpensive EMI 2-CD set, 5 58070 2). The Macmillan appears on an excellent Hyperion CD featuring his Mass (CDA67219 – see review) and the Adès on another King’s collection (EMI 2-for-1 5736932 – see review) but I can’t imagine either being better performed than here. 

The programme ends with an excellent performance of the Górecki Totus tuus (tr.13). It’s another timeless piece which brings us back to the mood of the opening Tavener, music which you hope will never end. It’s been recorded several times but never better than here.  The recording, excellent throughout, assisted by the acoustic of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, simply lets it fade away into near-inaudibility. 

The notes in the booklet are excellent – they’re so detailed that they’ve had to be printed on India paper to avoid making them too bulky to fit into the case. 

I’ve been so impressed by this new recording that it has reminded me to buy the earlier Road to Paradise, as I’ve been meaning to do for some time.  I think you’ll want both.  The Howells setting also appears at the heart of another recording to which it gives the title, on Chandos CHSA5066. This time all the music is late 20th-century or contemporary.  I’ll try to include this recording, too, in a future Download Roundup. 

There’s one work which I think should have been included on the earlier Road to Paradise, Sir George Dyson’s Hierusalem, another setting by a 20th-century composer of an earlier, 16th-century, text: ‘Hierusalem, my happy home’.  You can remedy the loss inexpensively with a highly-recommendable budget-price CD of Dyson’s music (Hyperion Helios CDH55046, St Michael’s Singers/Jonathan Rennert), on which Hierusalem forms the concluding work.

Brian Wilson



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