Spotless Rose – Hymns to the Virgin Mary

0 of 5 stars

Splendid Jewel
A Hymn to the Virgin
Three Latin Motets
A Spotless Rose
Two Marian Pieces
Three Liturgical Motets
Jean Belmont Ford

Phoenix Chorale
Charles Bruffy

Recorded 27-29 May 2005 in Camelback Bible Church, Paradise Valley, Arizona

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: October 2008
Duration: 54 minutes



a cappella music devoted to the Virgin Mary, well-programmed so that a range of potentially diffuse musical styles follow each other seamlessly.

The danger with this approach is that the listener may tire from lack of variety – most of the pieces are, inevitably, slow and reflective. But a more than cursory listen will reveal much to delight and savour in each composer’s different response to the theme.

For example, the striking medieval-like parallel harmonies and contrasting meditative passages of Stephen Paulus’s arresting opener “Splendid Jewel”, lead serendipitously into the 17-year-old Benjamin Britten’s well-known “A Hymn to the Virgin”, setting medieval text.

The performances are clean, clear, and often sensitive, though rarely distinguished. The Arizona-based professional Phoenix Chorale makes a decent, well-blended sound – the equivalent of dozens of amateur or semi-professional British choirs (such as the Holst Singers, arbitrarily to pick just one). The balance is often top-heavy, noticeably lacking deep bass resonance at the end of the Paulus and in Howells’s exquisite “A Spotless Rose” (which provides the title for the album). Though neatly sung, the choir doesn’t bring out enough of the distinctive character of Howells’s music. Basses also frequently seem to lag behind the beat (most detrimentally in the Britten).

There is though some impressive unison and clashing semitone tuning in the second of Cecilia McDowall’s “Three Latin Motets”, hauntingly scored for female voices only; although the music yearns for more expansiveness than conductor Charles Bruffy allows.

Much of the first half of the recital is atmospherically all of a piece, taken at a ‘one style fits all’ devotional tempo and feel. It could persuasively be argued that this continuity has been carefully contrived in order to create a fluid musical sequence, on which level it certainly succeeds. But the individual pieces have more to offer, and greater attention to character would have enhanced, rather than disturbed, the sequential flow.

In the first half-hour, the choir sounds most at home in the fulsome close-harmony of Javier Busto’s dreamy ‘Ave Maria’ (warm romanticism which stays just the right side of slushiness), but the tour de force is the Jean Belmont Ford’s four-movement, 21-minute “Electa” from 1995, the most distinctively performed segment of the disc.

Drum-beats add medieval-like austerity and something stark and primitive to the vibrant harmonic and rhythmic world. There is more vitality and musical contrast within this one piece than the whole of the rest of the album – a testament to what the choir can achieve if it gets sufficiently under the skin of a score.

So this is very much an album of two halves: the first affable but under-characterised, followed by a more flamboyant and, paradoxically, more emotionally engaging performance of “Electa”.

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