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In Sorrow’s Footsteps
Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962)
Stabat Mater (2017) [18:55]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c 1525-1594)
Super flumina Babylonis [4:15]
Stabat Mater [9:57]
Ave Maria [4:28]
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652
Miserere [13:26]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b 1959)
Miserere (2009) [12:13]
The Marian Consort/Rory McCleery
rec. 2018, Merton College, Oxford
Latin texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34215 [63:19]

This album has been recorded to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of The Marian Consort. To further mark that occasion the group commissioned Gabriel Jackson’s setting of the Stabat mater, which here receives its first recording. Indeed, at the time of the recording the work had not been performed in public; its premiere took place in March 2018.

I’ve been waiting for this disc with more than usual impatience. I’m an admirer both of the work of The Marian Consort and the music of Gabriel Jackson and I had arranged to attend the first day of the recording sessions, at which the new work was set down, in order to write a session report for MusicWeb International. Unfortunately, a serious family emergency the night before meant I had to cancel my plans. So, instead of hearing the Jackson piece taking shape as a recording I’ve been obliged to wait for the CD.

It has been worth the wait. Jackson’s setting of the great medieval poem is a very fine one indeed. As I’ve come to expect with this composer, he writes most imaginatively and sympathetically for the voices – ten singers are used here - and at every turn his music seems to complement and enhance the words marvellously. So, for instance, the very opening is searing and tragic. The music then becomes quieter, but still very intense. In the first part of the poem the three-line stanzas comment on the anguish of Mary by the cross of Jesus and quite a lot of the music expresses, as do the words, pity for Christ’s mother. At ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’ the emphasis of the poem switches from commentary and from now on until the end the words address Mary in prayer It seems to me that Jackson’s music, very fine up to this point, now becomes even more expressive; the harmonies are richer and the writing is more complex.

When he reaches the stanza beginning ‘Fac me tecum pie flere’ Jackson introduces an extended and very expressive solo soprano line, here sung superbly by Rachel Ambrose Evans. This solo line at one and the same time seems to break free from the ensemble yet still remains a part of it. The soloist has this leading role while four stanzas are sung. After a much more arresting passage (‘Fac me plagis vulnerari’) the music becomes hushed and prayerful at ‘Christe, cum sit hinc exire’ and we hear the solo soprano again. The last two words of the poem, ‘Paradisi gloria’ are set to a wonderful, short harmonic progression that takes the work to a consoling conclusion in F major.

I’ve listened several times now to Gabriel Jackson’s Stabat mater and I’m in no doubt that it’s an eloquent and musically very fine setting of the poem. The Marian Consort sing this challenging piece with complete assurance and great commitment. It’s hard to imagine that the work could have had a better first recording. I hope I’ll get a chance to hear it live before too long.

As you’ll see from the contents of this programme, Rory McCleery and The Marian Consort have sought to reflect in this anniversary programme what have been the two-fold focus of their work to date: Renaissance consort music and compositions from our own time. Thus, it is very logical indeed to include Palestrina’s setting of the Stabat mater as well. There are some differences between the versions of the text that the two composers set and it’s very helpful to have these differences clearly laid out in the booklet. Palestrina’s piece is set for two four-part choirs and on this recording the two choirs are nicely, though not excessively, separated. McCleery and his singers make a wonderful job of the piece; every phrase is ideally expressive and beautifully calibrated. In his notes Andrew Mellor points out the direct style of Palestrina’s music in this piece and that’s certainly brought out in this performance.

We also hear ‘old’ and ‘new’ when it comes to the settings of the Miserere. The setting by Allegri is famous, of course; indeed, I fear it’s become rather over-exposed. However, there’s always room for a fine account of it such as this present one. Tenor Guy Cutting is an excellent cantor. The distant Choir 2 is ideally placed in the recording: they’re suitably distant but the sound of their voices registers clearly and with a pleasing sense of ambience around them. My guess is that for the recording Choir 1 was placed on the sanctuary steps and Choir 2 was right at the other end of the Merton College Chapel, underneath the organ loft. Engineer Paul Baxter has recorded the performance in an ideal way. The soprano in Choir 2 (Charlotte Ashley) negotiates the famous top Cs with bell-like clarity but adds no additional embellishments to her line, as have been heard on one or two recent recordings by other ensembles: I’m rather glad of that.

James MacMillan’s 2009 setting of the same text is informed by Allegri’s setting and complements it very imaginatively though it is in no sense a pastiche. MacMillan pays overt homage to Allegri by introducing (at the words ‘Auditui meo dabis gaudium’) the same Tonus Pelegrinus plainchant that his predecessor had used. This grows very naturally out of MacMillan’s original music and he avoids a “slavish” quotation by presenting the chant in two-part harmony, alternately sung by male and female voices. Later, MacMillan returns to the chant but this time four soloists sing it, each in turn, and their respective solo lines finish with an upward-soaring embellishment. The last verse of the psalm brings all the voices together, the music beautifully harmonised. MacMillan’s setting is a terrific piece. The music is at one and the same time firmly rooted in the past yet also resolutely of the present day. It receives an outstanding performance from The Marian Consort.

The programme is completed by the inclusion of two short pieces by Palestrina. Both are exquisite and are performed with great poise and sensitivity. Given the Consort’s name, it seems to me to be entirely appropriate that one of these pieces is the Marian anthem, Ave Maria.

Judging by previous albums that I’ve heard, the composition of the Consort appears to flex according to the needs of the repertoire. For this programme up to10 singers are used - four sopranos and two each of altos, tenors and basses – though some of the pieces call for a smaller ensemble. I think that Rory McCleery conducts throughout, singing only in the Palestrina Ave Maria. Throughout the programme the singing is absolutely flawless yet you never get the impression that what you are hearing involves beauty of sound for its own sake. Whether in the Renaissance music or the two contemporary pieces these gifted musicians sing not just with poise and great accomplishment but also with sensitivity; they communicate the music expertly.

As I indicated when discussing the Allegri piece, Paul Baxter has recorded the Consort in an exemplary fashion. The sound has ideal clarity but it also has just the right degree of warmth: clarity has not been achieved by making a recording that is in any way antiseptic. The recording is satisfyingly realistic. The sympathetic acoustic of Merton College Chapel has been used to excellent effect to enhance very naturally the singers’ sound.

The icing on the cake, as it were, is an excellent set of notes by Andrew Mellor.

I’ve heard and enjoyed several of the Marian Consort’s previous releases (review ~ review ~ review ~ review~ review) but I’m inclined to think that this outstanding disc is the best thing they’ve yet done. As such, it’s a splendid celebration of ten years of music-making. Just as importantly, it launches their second decade with panache.

John Quinn



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