24 August 2013

CD REVIEW: AVE MARIA – Gregorian Chant (Seraphic Fire; SFM SFMCD12)

Seraphic Fire: AVE MARIA - Gregorian Chant (SFM SFMCD12)

JOSQUIN DES PREZ (1450 – 1521), JOHN DUNSTAPLE (1385 – 1455), FRANCISCO GUERRERO (1528 – 1599), GIOVANNI PIERLUIGI DA PALESTRINA (1525 – 1594), LEONEL POWER (1385 – 1445), TOMÁS LUIS DE VICTORIA (1548 – 1611): Ave Maria – Gregorian Chant—Seraphic Fire; Patrick Dupré Quigley [Recorded at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, on 22 January 2013; SFM SFMCD12; 1CD, 55:28; Available on Amazon, iTunes, and directly from Seraphic Fire]

In the incomparably rich history of Western liturgical music, few tenets of Christian belief have wrought stronger influence on the work of composers than Marianism.  Tracing its origins to the very beginning of the Church, veneration of the Blessed Virgin took on increased importance within the standard liturgy in the early centuries after the Papacy of Saint Paul, not least in the innovations of Saint Ambrose of Milan, whose ‘Ambrosian’ rites of Marian devotion are still employed in conservative parishes in Lombardy and one of whose plainchants, ‘Ave Regina cælorum’ (‘Hail, Queen of heaven’), is sung in this recording.  In the nearly two thousand years that have followed, veneration of Mary has grown stronger and more widespread in the wakes of famous Marian apparitions in Mexico (Our Lady of Guadalupe), France (Lourdes), Ireland (Knock), and Portugal (Fátima), and the well-documented and deeply personal dedication of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Mother inspired a further revival of Marian fervor in the last quarter of the 20th Century.  Integral to the celebration of the Litany of the Hours, which since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council has been the guiding template for execution of the Roman Breviary, is recitation of one of the four seasonal Marian antiphons—Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Cælorum, Regina Coeli, or Salve Regina—at the close of Compline, the Evening Prayer.  Since the development of polyphonic Marian antiphons in Britain in the generations just prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution of ties to the Papacy, many of the greatest composers have applied their talents to settings of Marian antiphons: Monteverdi, whose 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine is anchored by inspired settings of Marian hymns; Händel; Mozart; and even the agnostic Brahms.  This new recording by Miami-based choral ensemble Seraphic Fire features performances of Marian antiphons and Vespers hymns by six of the greatest exponents of Renaissance polyphony, complemented by plainchant settings from the different traditions that influenced the developments of these composers’ distinctive styles.  None of these selections is unfamiliar to listeners who cherish this repertory, but even ears accustomed to performances of this music are unlikely to be prepared for the exalted, uplifting sounds heard on this disc.

Founded in 2002 by conductor and Artistic Director Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire has emerged as one of America’s most innovative, artistically versatile choral ensembles.  With a discography including absorbing performances of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beate Virgine and Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, Seraphic Fire and Maestro Quigley have cultivated a reputation for fresh interpretations of music weighed down by bloated, in some cases anachronistic performance traditions.  Scores of historically-informed choral ensembles have the pieces on this disc in their repertories, but the singing of Seraphic Fire brims with the most vital element of this music: devotion.  Though the blended sound that they produce is exquisite, their part singing is so fine that the members of Seraphic Fire deserve individual mention.  Led by Chorus Master James K. Bass, who also sings bass, the singers of Seraphic Fire in this performance are sopranos Rebecca Duren, Estelí Gomez, Gitanjali Mathur, and Molly Quinn; altos Misty Leah Bermudez, Eric S. Brenner, and Reginald L. Mobley; tenors Vincent Davies, Owen McIntosh, and Steven Edward Soph; and basses Cameron Beauchamp and Thomas McCargar.  Maestro Quigley consistently proves an inspired leader, shaping each selection with enlightened understanding of the unique ways in which its composer used music to express the nuances of the mystical texts.

This stimulating recording opens with a beautiful performance of a 13th-Century English plainchant setting of ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater,’ followed by the setting of the same text by 16th-Century Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero.  Guerrero had ample reasons to seek the Blessed Virgin’s intercession: a lifelong resident of Sevilla, the roving Spaniard journeyed to the Holy Land, was abducted and held for ransom by pirates, and landed in debtors’ prison when he proved penniless.  Before he could set out on another pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was felled by plague.  Unlike many of his Spanish contemporaries, Guerrero composed both sacred and secular music, and his use of harmony was often as adventurous as his spirit.  His setting of ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ is a splendid piece, the open-hearted emotionalism of the text inspiring Guerrero to an eloquent employment of four-part writing.  Maestro Quigley directs Seraphic Fire in a poised but stirring account of the piece, culminating in a devoutly ardent statement of ‘Ave, peccatorum miserere,’ the concluding plea for the Virgin’s mercy.

Preceded by an Ambrosian plainchant setting dating from the 9th Century, Josquin des Prez’s ‘Inviolata, Integra, et Casta es,’ a five-part motet typical of the composer’s work, receives from Seraphic Fire a performance that highlights the sophistication of Josquin’s contrapuntal style.  The ensemble’s singing illuminates the ‘dulcisona’ in Josquin’s soaring melodic lines.  Equally sensitive to the brilliance of Josquin’s tone painting is Seraphic Fire’s performance of the composer’s motet ‘Ave Maria … Virgo serena.’  So great was the popularity of this motet in the 15th and 16th Centuries that it was granted pride of place at the front of the first collection of motets ever published.  Josquin’s strophic setting of the text evolves from Gregorian plainchant, and the clarity with which the singers elucidate the fugal treatment of the cantus firmus is highly responsive to the composer’s imaginative use of the unisonal melody.

John Dunstaple and Leonel Power were two of the most influential composers of church music in England during the late 14th and early 15th Centuries.  So admired was the work of Dunstaple in particular that his reach extended well beyond the British Isles and is credited with having contributed meaningfully to the development of the Burgundian School of polyphonic composition that produced Guillaume Dufay, whose music would dominate the churches and courts of Europe by the middle of the 15th Century.  Considering the wide appreciation of his work among his contemporaries, it is remarkable to note that the three-part motet ‘Quam pulchra est’ is one of the handful of surviving pieces that can be indubitably attributed to Dunstaple.  The beauty and originality of the piece, aptly reflective of the text, suggest that the acclaim bestowed upon Dunstaple both during his lifetime and in modern assessments of the music of the period is justified.  Prefaced by the 13th-Century Gregorian ‘Salve Mater Misericordiae,’ Seraphic Fire’s performance of ‘Quam pulchra est’ pulses with sensual exultation of the Blessed Virgin’s fairness, the choristers’ singing unashamedly glorying in the sexually-charged language and tonal explicitness with which the voluptuousness of Mary’s figure is described.  An emphatic Iberian ‘Ave, maris stella’ leads into Power’s ‘Ave Regina cælorum.’  Little is known of either Power’s life or his work, but his celebrity in late-Medieval Britain rivaled that of Dunstaple.  ‘Ave Regina cælorum’ is a brief but fascinating piece for three parts, eschewing Superius lines.  The altos, tenors, and basses sing it broadly but with close attention to Power’s balancing of rhythms as statements of the primary theme pass from voice to voice.

The towering geniuses of the Continental Renaissance and the most prominent voices of the 16th-Century Counter-Reformation were the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria and the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.  The former perhaps having studied under the latter, both composers’ works surpassed those of their contemporaries with game-changing refinement of counterpoint.  Victoria’s ‘Salve Regina’ for eight voices is rightly the centerpiece of the disc, its extravagant contrapuntal writing and unstintingly novel exploitation of chromatic intervals typifying not only its composer’s output but also the music of the Spanish Renaissance as a whole.  The sopranos’ voicing of the Superius parts is simply magnificent, the singers exhibiting breath control and security of intonation that rival the best singing of music of this type ever recorded.  The warm, slightly reverberant acoustic of the recording ensures that the music is given an appropriate space into which to expand without any delicate harmonies being obscured.  A less substantial piece, Victoria’s ‘Regina coeli, laetare, alleluia’ is nonetheless a full expression of its composer’s artistry, the repetitions of ‘Alleluia’ drawing from the singers shimmering eruptions of tone and reminding the listener that the great choruses of Händel were not all that far in the future.  So rhapsodic is Palestrina’s part writing in his ‘Ave Regina coelorum’ that the top line seems virtually a discantus supra librum, but the masterful way in which Palestrina maintained tight control over contrapuntal treatment of the primary theme without introducing the slightest element of rigidity into the free-flowing melodic line is apparent in Seraphic Fire’s singing of the piece.  The radiance of the music to which the words ‘Ex qua mundo lux est orta’—‘from whom light has shone to the world’—is sung is especially memorable, and the splendor of the singers’ delivery of the passage is galvanizing.

In every selection on Ave Maria, the ladies and gentlemen of Seraphic Fire offer singing that sets new standards, not merely for musical integrity but also for unashamedly emotive performances of music that, when sung as well as it is on this disc, sounds startlingly modern.  Music is inherently cyclical, after all, and the manner in which composers of the Renaissance expanded the monophony of the Middle Ages into the ambitious polyphony of their own time is reminiscent of the efforts of 20th- and 21st-Century composers to discard the stripped-down traditions of atonalism, post-Modernism, and Serialism and return to the examples of melodic and harmonic invention of Western music prior to World War II.  Just as the King James Bible and Qur’an are monumental works of literature that demand study beyond theological contexts, the music of Marian veneration on this disc requires no shared religious identifications in order to be completely enjoyed.  When the fruits of his labors of devotion are as tellingly and lovingly presented as they are here by Seraphic Fire, one man’s beliefs need not be shared or even understood by another for that devotion to seize the observer’s imagination.  The power of music, whether it was composed five months or five centuries ago, is to transcend every possible point of divisiveness, to be via the ears a means of universal communication among hearts and minds.  Performing exceptional music astoundingly, Patrick Dupré Quigley and Seraphic Fire converse in a dulcet language that no heart could fail to understand.