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
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
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
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.