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Vox Feminina
St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral Girls' Choir; Continuum Youth Choir/Blánaid Murphy
David Grealy (organ)
rec. 2019, St. Mary's Pro Cathedral, Dublin
Texts & translations not included
ST MARY'S PRO CATHEDRAL no number [49:17]

This CD is issued to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the Girls' Choir at St. Mary's Pro Cathedral. On three tracks they are joined by the girls of the Continuum Youth Choir, formed in September 2018 which, at the time of this recording, comprises alumni and current members of the cathedral choir. They also have two tracks to themselves (A Winter's Prayer and Ahtunowhiho).

The repertoire is almost exclusively by living female composers and written in the last quarter of a century. In programming a short work by Hildegard of Bingen the choir and their director Blánaid Murphy have shown the deep roots from which the high branches of the family tree of female composers have grown; It is notable that the 12th Century O Virtus Sapientiæ fits remarkably well into this collection.

The disc opens with Jubilate Domino, the first of three works by Dublin-born composer Rhona Clarke. With its vaguely unsettling rocking of the organ accompaniment and its minor key harmonic base the music seems a somewhat stern call to 'sing joyfully' but the choir nonetheless engage the piece with spirit. I was reminded of Holst's Hymn to Veda in its central section. Clarke's other two contributions are unaccompanied: The tale of the busy tooth fairy in Síofra Sí tells of a darker character than I was led to believe in as a child but I am drawn to its drama; open fifths in the voices hint at folk instruments weaving around the story. Cantate Domino bookends its reflective middle section to the words ‘he has done marvellous things’ with a rich tapestry of polyphonic lines.

There are three items from another Irish composer, Eibhlis Farrell. Farrell's Jesu Redemptor Omnium has chordal chant-like voices over a simple three-note organ ostinato. Her Ave Maria again features chant-like harmonies with a contrasting solo voice, admirably sung by soprano Emma Fitzgibbon, soaring in wide intervals over the texture. For many years Farrell has composed a Christmas Carol for family and friends and the choir have selected the beautiful Mary's Lullaby with its rising and falling chords and slow-moving harmony. It ends on an unresolved chord, almost as if a mother has hushed her song as her child falls asleep.

A very different lullaby is featured in Judith Weir's Holy Innocents. Rossetti's poem begins ‘Sleep, little baby sleep’ and beautiful though the music is it seems oddly disquieting. At first the organ part is delicate but full of busy movement and the melody has occasional angular corners. The second verse is richer and warmer and the first verse is then repeated with a simpler accompaniment and unison melody fading to a gentle conclusion.

Roxanna Panufnik is represented by Ubi caritas, setting the Gregorian chant familiar from Duruflé and Mealor. The chant is presented in unison over an organ accompaniment of slowly shifting harmonies then other counter melodies begin to appear, creating a more complex web that gradually fades into tranquility.

Siofra Kildee-Doolan, one of the choir's senior choristers, brings a beautiful, pure simplicity to Hildegard of Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiæ. This is followed by a rich setting of Samuel Longfellow's poem 'Tis winter now (A Winter's Prayer). It is sung by the Continuum Youth Choir who relish the wonderful word-painting of Anne-Marie O'Farrell in music that is by turns stark and desolate, warm and comforting. O'Farrell is an award-winning composer who is now Composer in Residence at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Of her music she says 'the most important thing to me is a regard for the beauty of melody, the infectiousness of rhythm and the irresistibility of instrumental and harmonic colour' and for me that is certainly the case here.
Lúireach Phádraig is Irene Buckley's setting of the popular Irish hymn Patrick's breastplate, sung here in Irish Gaelic. Charming in its simplicity the short sung phrases ‘Críost liom, Críost romham’ etc (Christ with me, Christ before me etc) are accompanied by gentle rocking phrases in the other voices.
Sarah MacDonald is director of Ely Cathedral girls' choir and is Fellow and Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Her Miserere mei, Deus is based on a series of haunting repeated chords that follow the rhythm of the words; descant-like melodies flow above this underlay.

Australian composer and educator Sandra Milliken's Panis Dei is a lovely chorus that repeats in varied guises with contrasting interludes. Ahtunowhiho by Dublin-based Raeghnya Zutshi is a celebration of Killer Whales and their connection to Native American heritage; Ahtunowhiho means ‘One who lives below’ and, while the disc notes do not mention it, I feel the wordless opening must surely be an impression of whale song.

Sarah Rimkus utilises the stylistic harmonies and string effects of the Northern Isles in her O Sing unto the Lord. The two choirs join together for this track, probably one of the most energetic works on this album. The other joint items are Síofra Sí and the appropriately exultant Jubilate Deo by the Bulgarian-born Dobrinka Tabakova which closes the programme.

Overall the singing is of high quality, balanced and clear and the beautiful, reverberant acoustic of their home ground recording venue is captured well. Compositionally this is all very tonal music with dissonance used to good effect. Blánaid Murphy and her choirs have done sterling service on behalf of these composers.

Rob Challinor
Rhona CLARKE (b.1958)
Jubilate Domino (2000) [3:23]
Sandra MILLIKEN (b.1961)
Panis Deo [2:40]
Eibhlis FARRELL (b.1953)
Ave Maria (2009) [3:03]
Judith WEIR (b.1954)
Holy Innocents (2016) [3:43]
Irene BUCKLEY (b.1978)
Lúireach Phádraig (2010) [2:16]
Rhona CLARKE (b. 1958)
Síofra Sí (2008) [2:16]
Hildegard von BINGEN (1098-1179)
O Virtus Sapientiæ [1:43]
Anne-Marie O'FARRELL (b.1966)
A Winter's Prayer (2010) [2:54]
Mary's Lullaby (2014) [3:09]
Cantate Domino (1990, rev. 2007) [3:42]
Raeghnya ZUTSHI (b.1990)
Ahtunowhiho [4:36]
Sarah MACDONALD (b.1968)
Miserere mei, Deus (2012) [4:17]
Jesu Redemptor Omnium (1996) [1:20]
Sarah RIMKUS (b.1990)
O sing unto the Lord [2:50]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b.1968)
Ubi Caritas (2018) [3:34]
Dobrinka TABAKOVA (b.1980)
Jubilate Deo (2002) [3:40]

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