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Mary star of the sea

Gothic Voices Detailed performer information
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Recording details: June 2015
Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: September 2016
Total duration: 74 minutes 21 seconds

Cover artwork: Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi (c1406-1469)
Bridgeman Art Library, London

Gothic Voices makes its Linn debut with an innovative programme celebrating the Virgin Mary through a kaleidoscope of time-transcending medieval and contemporary music.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The mood throughout is one of serenity and grace' (Financial Times)» More

'Performances, recording and booklet are all as excellent as when the Voices recorded for Hyperion. A fascinating release' (MusicWeb International)» More

'Whether or not you have any religious interest in the biblical figure of Mary, the music and the texts of these pieces might help to explain Mary’s importance in the mediaeval mind' (AndrewBensonWilson.org)

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For centuries the figure of Mary has deeply fascinated the devotees of European religious culture. The canonic bible seems to make up only a small proportion of what has been related on this subject amongst the proliferation of myths, legends, poetry and universal lore it has infused, and the culture and mentality it has permeated. Such a central subject of devotion will of course have provided much opportunity and inspiration for artists—not least composers of music—and the programme sequence here celebrates the biblical matriarch in the various images that have grown up around this continuous fascination: guiding light, mediator, caring mother and virgin lover to name a few. Ancient liturgical texts and poems explore her various mythical and human aspects and are set to music by masters of medieval England, offset by contemporary responses to these themes.

Part I of the programme focuses on the mythical and religious qualities of Mary. It is structured around music by the American composer Joanne Metcalf (b1958), who wrote a setting of excerpts of Canto XXIII from Paradiso by Dante (c1265-1321), calling it Il nome del bel fior (1998). Dante shares his vision of Mary the virgin as a 'fair rose through whom the divine word was made flesh', as the 'jewel of heaven' and 'the brightest of all stars' (recalling the familiar metaphor of Mary as star of the sea, 'stella maris'). The poetry circles around that 'fair rose' and Il nome del bel fior matches and captures Dante's 'circling, soaring melodies of poetry', revolving around the name Maria. Three of the cycle's ten movements are heard here, the first of which opens the procedure with an ethereal solo-voice meditation on the single word 'Maria'. The second, placed at the midpoint of Part I also sets this single word, with an increase of the texture to four voices, but the third of these concludes it with a powerfully effervescent display of Dante’s poetry, with its strong image of 'per entro il cielo scese una facella / formata in cerchio a guisa di corona / e cinsela e girossi intorno ad ella' ('out of the heavens a flaming band dropped / formed in a circle like a crown / that girdled and encompassed her').

The ideas surrounding the mystical aspects of Mary are progressively given more musical substance as texture and ‘plot’ gradually thicken, the non-contemporary Marian hymns, antiphons and sacred poetry settings advancing from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. They are set in their respective genres of conductus—homorhythmic with no notated rhythm, thus performed in free rhythm or in rhythmic modes, often characterized by a longish melisma on the last or penultimate syllable of a verse; cantilena—a distinctly English form of mellifluous polyphony with the voices largely in parallel motion; English discant—in which the voices move in contrary motion and a cantus firmus chant is sung in the middle voice; and carol—a fifteenth-century song in English or Latin, with much of the same parallel motion as in cantilena, but usually for two voices, with a third joining them for the recurring refrain, or burden.

Whilst upholding the mystical Marian imagery, Part II deals more directly with the human Mary figure. It is dominated by a dialogue of devotion, agony, faith and promise between Mary and Jesus in the thirteenth-century Middle English poem Stond wel, moder, under rode. The scene is set with the two-voice Dou way, Robyn / Sancta mater gratiae, one voice indirectly telling of a mother caring for her young child, above which another voice expresses various illustrations of her sanctity. Then, in each of the three following sections, all primed with fifteenth-century three-voice settings of prayers of Marian devotion, the great poem, Stond wel, moder, under rode, appears in varying forms and concludes each mini-sequence with renewed focus on the human aspect of Mary, first in its original thirteenth-century monophonic form, then in two separate movements by the second contemporary composer featured on this recording, English-born Andrew Smith (b1970). Speaking about his inspiration for the piece, he writes: ‘In the story of Jesus’ persecution, suffering and death, there is perhaps no more poignant moment than the helplessness and desperation his mother must have felt witnessing her son’s death, as is most beautifully expressed in this English medieval poem. I have always been particularly attracted to the texts and music of Passiontide and Holy Week since they address such a mysterious yet inevitable aspect of human existence.’

Having reached the plateau of fifteenth-century compositional writing by the end of Part I we stay in this era for the non-contemporary polyphonic pieces in Part II, written in the English discant and carol style, before a summarizing votive plainchant prayer takes us back to the thirteenth century. In a conductus-related rondellus, a style characterized by so-called voice-exchange, in which the phrases of the three individual voices are repeatedly alternated between them, the programme’s high-spirited finale Alleluia psallat fuses earthly praise—as it were to the sound of harps and drums—with the mystical, though triumphant joy of the flowering of Jesse’s lineage in the solo plainchant verse ‘Virga Jesse’.

It has been an interesting project to combine the contemporary works presented here with medieval music. Many musicians agree that compositions of these widely spaced periods can often be compatible with one another, usually when the contemporary pieces are based on a 'polyphonic logic' and when tonal writing is combined with the 'horizontal' dominating the 'vertical', i.e. the harsh dissonances between voices caused by the uncompromising intrinsic logic of voice-leading making (retrospective) sense to the ear because of the harmonic resolutions the part-writing leads to—Stravinsky is possibly one of the first composers of the recent age to have written with this concept in mind. The works of the two contemporary composers featured here are most definitely tonal, treating the relationships between 'melody' and 'harmony', dissonance and consonance, tension and resolution with devices related to those of composers living 600 plus years before. The works by Metcalf relate further to the medieval items by her control and clarity of intricate and extravagant rhythmic patterns, her manner of word-setting being aptly described as 'at once rugged and elegant'. By contrast, Smith's response to the original Stond well, moder, under rode has his four homophonic voices emulating the same kind of 'psalmodic' rhythm as in a chant, or even as in a conductus when performed with free rhythm. Its tonality hinges on the phrygian mode, being tonally centred on E; and, steering the final phrase of each verse of poetry towards this implied target, it too recreates the same sense of resolution found in medieval writing, even at cadences where his resolutions retain attractive dissonances.

Transcending time, age and compositional era, whatever meaning the age-old fascination with the Mary figure may have for each of us, the art inspired by it presents a dazzling kaleidoscope of imagery and myth: glorious, painful, erotic and healing, to which the music on this recording, in its many facets, bears witness.

Julian Podger © 2016

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