A Rose Magnificat
The soprano solo that opens Leighton’s Of a rose is all my song flowers out of frosty silence, gradually pushing out its shoots into a full-blooming, modal melody that seems to belong at once to the 15th-century world of its text and to the 20th of its composer. It’s an extraordinary marriage of music and text, and an evocative start for this exquisitely crafted recital of English Marian motets and Magnificats from the Gabrieli Consort and Paul McCreesh.
The vogue for pairing Renaissance and contemporary choral works is well established but this is a programme that draws the dialogue between the two repertories into fresh animation. Sharing not only their polyphonic textures but also their medieval and Renaissance texts and modal harmonies, these are works whose musical tradition and genealogy is still a living concern (and not just alive but interestingly so), as we hear in pieces by Jonathan Lane, Owain Park and Matthew Martin.
Britten is the missing link in a programme that starts with the ‘virile polyphony’ of the Eton Choirbook and Wylkynson’s Salve regina (its vast Gothic architecture boldly carved by the consort) and ends with the disc’s title-track, newly commissioned from Matthew Martin, going by way of Tallis, Warlock and Howells. It’s his ghost that lingers over both Lane’s There is no rose, which nods to the earlier composer’s Hymn to the Virgin, and Park’s Ave maris stella, with its Brittenish way with a scale – at once ingenuous and ingenious. Performances are pristine: carefully balanced and always cleanly tuned, and a more muscular, characterful top line offers a welcome contrast to some of the ensemble’s English rivals.
McCreesh’s ear for a contemporary classic is unerring, and this is a programme to win new audiences for composers who aren’t (yet) household names. The Park and Lane, along with MacMillan’s Ave maris stella, are easy wins but it’s Martin’s A Rose Magnificat that demands a second and third return to the disc. This large-scale troped setting (which holds the lovely ‘There is no rose’ within its liturgical text) is a major new work, and one whose densely virtuoso choral writing and clever construction are married to a really tender treatment of text.