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Cecilia McDOWALL (b. 1951)
Ave maris stella (2001)a [11:47]
Magnificat (2003)b [25:17]
Christus natus est (2002, revised 2003)c [15:05]
A Fancy of Folksongs (2003)d [11:24]
Rachel Nicholls (soprano)abcd; Frances Bourne (mezzo-soprano)b; Sally Price (harp)d; Canterbury Chamber Choir; Parmiter’s Senior Singers; Orchestra Novaabc; George Vass
Recorded: St Giles Church, Cripplegate, London, May 2004
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7146 [64:18]

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Some time ago, I enthusiastically reviewed a disc of wind music by Cecilia McDowall (Deux-Elles DXL 1033), which I found direct, well-crafted, colourful and immensely appealing, while being clearly from our time. The present reasonably filled release of recent choral works, all written over the last three years or so, confirms my first impression. In her choral music, McDowall achieves writing that challenges amateurs and rewards professional musicians and audiences as well. Yes, contemporary music can be attractive, without condescending or without being written down.

Each of these works has its own character, so that this welcome release displays a most refreshing variety. McDowall’s approach to choral music is clearly traditional, in that her music obviously belongs to the best of the British choral tradition, that she handles with a most appealing freshness. Something that can be said about Will Todd’s choral music, for example.

McDowall’s setting Ave maris stella is based on the well-known words - also beautifully set by the late Grace Williams - and on Psalms 106 and 26. As with the other works in this selection, it is scored for relatively modest forces, in this case, string orchestra. The setting is beautifully contrasted alternating hymn-like and more animated sections reflecting the words. Finzi is a name that comes to mind when listening to this very fine work. Like John Rutter, McDowall, too, has the knack of writing tunes at once memorable and grateful to sing.

Her setting of the Magnificat, completed in 2003, is rather more ambitious - it is the longest work here - and quite substantial. It is also rather restrained, but eloquent and deeply felt. It is scored for soprano and mezzo soloists, chorus and small orchestra (oboe, cor anglais, bassoon and strings). A slow introduction leads into the opening words sung by the chorus. Each soloist has a movement to herself, whereas they both join in the fifth section set as a duet. The chorus has the last word in the work’s triumphant close. McDowall’s Magnificat is a marvellous piece of music that should be eagerly picked up by good amateur choral societies.

The Christmas cantata Christus natus est, originally scored for brass in 2002 and orchestrated in 2003, is scored for soprano, children’s chorus, mixed chorus and small orchestra. It uses well-known carols presented in attractively varied settings. The composer also uses a tune from one of her Christmas carols as an introduction and as instrumental links between each carol setting. After the introduction, a brilliant setting of Personent hodie is followed by a beautiful old French carol Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris, albeit using a variant of the tune I used to know. The joyful Gaudete! has an attractive archaic ring, and nicely contrasts with the following lullaby (a traditional Polish carol) sung by the children’s voices. The cantata ends with Angelus ad virginem capped by a brief restatement of Personent hodie. This is a little gem and a really delightful work that deserves to become a Christmas classic.

This attractive selection of McDowall’s choral music ends with another little gem, the choral suite A Fancy of Folksongs for soprano, chorus and harp. It opens with a beautiful setting of Green Bushes and ends with a jolly setting of O, no John!. In between come The rambling sailor as some sort of swaggering Scherzo and The crystal spring sung by soprano and women’s voices. Another modest, but real winner.

McDowall’s happy, unpretentious but superbly crafted music making is marvellously served by really fine performances. This most engaging and rewarding release should not be missed, for the music is just too good to be bluntly dismissed. There is really much to enjoy here. Maybe, you might already put it on your shopping list for next Christmas; but, really, you need not wait that long.

Hubert Culot

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