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Spotless Rose, Hymns to the Virgin Mary - Bruffy

Spotless Rose, Hymns to the Virgin Mary - Bruffy

Chandos  CHSA 5066

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Paulus: Splendid Jewel, Britten: A Hymn to the Virgin, McDowall: Three Latin Motets, Howells: A Spotless Rose, Busto: Two Marian Pieces, Willan: Three Liturgical Motets, Belmont: Electa

Phoenix Chorale
Charles Bruffy (conductor)


Stephen Paulus is one of America’s most prominent composers, recognised particularly for his empathetic vocal writing. In Splendid Jewel, based on a fourteenth-century lauda, Paulus imparts a mediaeval flavour to the setting of this ancient text, which he then warms with his own harmonic language. A Hymn to the Virgin is one of Britten’s earliest pieces, written in 1930 when Britten was not quite seventeen. Britten retained a warm feeling for this youthful piece, so much so that it was one of the pieces performed at his funeral.

The English composer Cecilia McDowall is well known for her sensitive text setting. The ‘Ave Regina’ and the ‘Regina caeli’ are two of the four great Marian antiphons of the ancient Church and McDowall’s settings of them are here followed by a haunting Ave Maria for women’s voices. She is joined by another English composer, Herbert Howells, a composer famous for his choral music, and more especially for his sacred music. His setting of the fourteenth-century Marian text ‘A Spotless Rose’ dates from his mid-twenties, and is dedicated to his mother

The Liturgical Motets are among Healey Willan’s best-known pieces, and the three recorded here take their texts from Responsories from an eighth-century Office of Our Lady and from the Song of Solomon. Completing the SACD are works by Javier Busto and Jean Belmont Ford. Belmont Ford has long been a favourite of Charles Bruffy and his choirs, who are enthusiastic champions of her work. Electa, a commission by the Kansas City Chorale in 1995 and recorded here for the first time, draws on various liturgical texts to weave a tapestry of praise to the Virgin Mary. In his Ave, Maria and Ave maris stella, the latter a premiere recording, Busto sets the familiar ancient texts.
Stephen Paulus is one of America’s most prominent composers, recognised particularly for his empathetic vocal writing. In Splendid Jewel, based on a fourteenth-century lauda, Paulus imparts a mediaeval flavour to the setting of this ancient text, which he then warms with his own harmonic language. A Hymn to the Virgin is one of Britten’s earliest pieces, written in 1930 when Britten was not quite seventeen. Britten retained a warm feeling for this youthful piece, so much so that it was one of the pieces performed at his funeral.

The English composer Cecilia McDowall is well known for her sensitive text setting. The ‘Ave Regina’ and the ‘Regina caeli’ are two of the four great Marian antiphons of the ancient Church and McDowall’s settings of them are here followed by a haunting Ave, Maria for women’s voices. She is joined by another English composer, Herbert Howells, a composer famous for his choral music, and more especially for his sacred music. His setting of the fourteenth-century Marian text ‘A Spotless Rose’ dates from his mid-twenties, and is dedicated to his mother

The Liturgical Motets are among Healey Willan’s best-known pieces, and the three recorded here take their texts from Responsories from an eighth-century Office of Our Lady and from the Song of Solomon. Completing the SACD are works by Javier Busto and Jean Belmont Ford. Belmont Ford has long been a favourite of Charles Bruffy and his choirs, who are enthusiastic champions of her work. Electa, a commission by the Kansas City Chorale in 1995 and recorded here for the first time, draws on various liturgical texts to weave a tapestry of praise to the Virgin Mary. In his Ave, Maria and Ave maris stella, the latter a premiere recording, Busto sets the familiar ancient texts. The SA-CD booklet comes with notes and full texts in three languages.

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Review by John Miller - November 4, 2008

The Phoenix Chorale and its conductor/Artistic Director Charles Bruffy are one of the brightest jewels in the Chandos crown. Bruffy has a great talent for programming, displayed superbly on this new disc of sacred pieces in honour of the Virgin Mary. Because of a dearth of information in the Gospels about Mary, the early Christians of the Eastern Church in particular began weaving an elaborate web of poetic myth and imagery about her, much of which is reflected here in this mainly C20th collection of choral pieces.

The a cappella programme is united not just by the ancient Marian texts used, but by the common musical ancestry of the Church. Each piece is in some way informed by plainchant, renaissance polyphonic or Romantic styles, often brought cleverly up to date. There are two première recordings, and some of the other pieces will be familiar only to those who sing in choruses. For the average listener, therefore, this is a disc of many new and alluring treasures.

Among these treasures, I was particularly pleased to find the Hymn to the Virgin by a 16-year old Benjamin Britten. An intimate study of pure chant-like melody shared antiphonally between a larger and a smaller choir, the latter singing in hushed tones, it remained a favourite of the Composer's and was performed at his funeral.

In her Three Latin Motets, Cecilia McDowall uses subtly clustered harmonies which cause the music to shimmer and vibrate in a pointillist way, with mystic effect. The second motet is for women's voices only, and a fine, dancing Regina Coeli completes the set.

The titular piece, Herbert Howells' A Spotless Rose, sports a baritone solo and is marvellously directed to be played 'with easeful movement'. Bruffy and choir provide a great sense of flowing peacefulness in this carol-anthem for Christmastide.

Javier Busto's two Marian pieces recieve their première recording - the first of many, I should think. They have an appealing simplicity yet glow with many tone colours and shifts in mood. The exultant surge of tone at the words "Sancta Maria" in the Ave Maria leaves a lasting impression.

The longest and perhaps the most original work originated in a commission by the Phoenix Chorale to composer Jean Belmont Ford, a resident of Kansas City, Missouri, the home town of Charles Bruffy's other choir, the Kansas City Chorale. Her 'Electa' (the title refers to a female elected one) has four sections using the ancient texts of 'De Profundis', 'Asperges me Domine', 'Ave, Dulcissima Maria' and 'Magnificat Anima Mea', thus proceeding from the stark lamenting of a soul's cry from the depths to the glorification of Mary's soul. This fascinating work is uniquely accompanied by a bass drum and a single tympano drum, which lends a curiously hieratic and tribal sound to the piece.

Bruffy's programme has a cumulative effect and makes for very satisfying listening; balm for the soul, indeed. It may seem small measure at under an hour, but this is one of those cases when more would simply be superfluous.

The recording is up to the usual standard for Chandos with this ensemble. Its acoustic is generous but the choral image is sharply focussed and unfailingly beautiful. The solos emerge naturally without spotlighting, and the subtle resonances of the deep bass drum are captured with stunning fidelity. Presentation is also exemplary, with a detailed account of each piece in English, German and French, with all the texts also supplied.

Highly recommended as a source of beauty and solace from the cares of the world.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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