Music for the Queen of Heaven
The Marian Consort made its debut recording for the Delphian label in 2011 with an acclaimed programme of ‘Music of Marian Devotion from Spain’s Century of Gold’. Now Rory McCleery directs them in a richly rewarding disc of 20th-century a cappella motets, once again celebrating the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven. Spanning just over a century of music, a dozen British composers take fresh approaches to ancient Latin texts, mostly antiphons, with just one setting of the most celebrated Marian canticle of all – the Magnificat – by Roxanna Panufnik. Her father Andrzej’s Song to the Virgin Mary is the disc’s centrepiece (and longest track). Structured as a musical palindrome, this setting of one of Poland’s oldest hymns also visits each of the 12 keys before grinding to an ecstatic halt.
Two composers tackle the same text – the Salve regina. Gabriel Jackson takes a soothing, close-harmony approach, whereas the Howells (which dates from 1915 and was written for Richard Terry’s fledgling Westminster Cathedral Choir) is clearly the product of many hours improvising in the organ loft. Anna Dennis’s soaring solo is deliciously outstanding. Howells’s spirit also hovers benevolently over Hilary Campbell’s scrunchy Ave Maria of 2012. By way of contrast, mock medievalisms are a distinctive feature of Cecilia McDowall’s votive antiphon Alma redemptoris mater.
The most recent track, dating from 2016, is Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Gaude et laetare. Here the bells ring out in a tour de force of rousing harmonic daring. Joy also spills out of Lennox Berkeley’s Regina coeli, laetare, the third of his Op 83 motets. The hypnotic repeated notes of MacMillan’s Vesper hymn Ave maris stella bring this perfectly balanced sequence to a serene conclusion.
With no more than eight voices singing, the recorded balance is generally excellent with just a couple of moments when the bass’s lowest notes fail to register completely.