The Virgin Mary is a regular subject of concerts of shorter choral works, and singers from Gabrieli under Paul McCreesh put together a well-judged programme on the theme – ‘A Rose Magnificat’ – on Thursday evening, which included examples of the usual Marian hymns – Ave maris stella, Magnificat, Salve Regina – by Renaissance and modern British composers, as well as Tallis’ Videte miraculum and a clutch of settings of those mediaeval carols beloved of British composers of the 20th century and beyond.
Cream of the early crop was Robert White’s glorious multi-part Magnificat. The piece comes from the apogee of cantus-firmus-based English polyphony, and is like a sunlit stream – defined by shape and trajectory, but full of scintillating ripples and eddies where the many internal harmonies constantly clash and resolve. Gabrieli gave a magnificent account of it, allowing the music to speak for itself through clear line and excellent blend. Some early-music vocal groups go for a purer, thinner tone, but the Gabrieli singers add just enough vibrato to give the polyphony warmth and weight, and this paid off well in the White and, indeed, in all of their Renaissance pieces: the Tallis, John Sheppard’s Ave Maris Stella and Robert Wylkynson’s Salve Regina from The Eton Choirbook – the earliest work in the concert. In this latter piece sections of full choir were interspersed with sections featuring different combinations of soloists, each one a euphonious collection of voices, providing the variation needed in a long piece made even lengthier by the heavily melismatic writing – such as the 15 seconds taken over the singing of the ‘i’ of ‘Maria!
The twentieth century was represented by Kenneth Leighton, Peter Warlock and Herbert Howells. Leighton’s setting of Of a rose is all my song takes the form of a dialogue between a solo soprano and full choir, and the sweet solo voice contrasted perfectly with Gabrieli’s lush rendering of Leighton’s sometimes spiky harmonies. Peter Warlock’s most famous carol is Bethlehem Down, but As Dew in Aprylle (a version of the Middle-English I sing of a maiden) deserves more of an outing at carol services. Gabrieli’s warm but agile account accentuated not only the delicious English-pastoral harmonies, but also the seaside jollity of the piece’s bouncy complex time signatures constantly changing to serve the stress of the text. English pastoralism also abounded in Howells’ well-known Salve Regina, in which Gabrieli embellished their artfully blended sound with changing sonorities and clever use of dynamics, producing some spine-tingling full fortissimi.
Of the 21st-century pieces, James MacMillan’s 2011 Ave Maris Stella stood out, proving that he is arguably Britain’s most accomplished choral composer. In a nod to Renaissance cantus-firmus works, the piece surrounds a monotone melody with complex shifting clusters of notes – accurately articulated by the choir – that, unlike the use of note clusters by some of MacMillan’s contemporaries, drive the piece forward. Owain Park’s 2014 Ave Maris Stella and Jonathan Lane’s There is no rose were given first-rate performances, the simple popular-Christmas-carol nature of the latter contrasting well with Park’s complex composition of alternating homophony and overlapping modal scales.
The evening was named for the world première performance of Matthew Martin’s Rose Magnificat, a challenging double-choir piece full of busy imitative passages, parlando sections and sonorous note clusters that interleaves the words of the Latin Magnificat with those of the carol There is no rose. Gabrieli showed their consummate skill as musicians, tackling the piece with surety and verve, making for a thrilling performance that urged listeners to re-visit the work.