This latest disc from The Marian Consort and director Rory McCleery (on Delphian), “In Sorrow’s Footsteps,” compares and contrasts old and modern settings of iconic sacred texts, by performing the “Stabat Mater” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) and also by Gabriel Jackson (born 1962); and the “Miserere” (Psalm 51) by Gregorio Allegri (circa 1582–1652) and also by James MacMillan (born 1959). Two motets by Palestrina complete the program.
The Marian Consort sings these works one voice to a part, which provides and interesting perspective on pieces that are generally sung by larger ensembles nowadays; only Gabriel Jackson’s piece, written for The Marian Consort, was conceived for single voices. Palestrina’s music, written for the Sistine Chapel Choir, would have been performed by single voices and larger groups, and James MacMillan’s piece was written for The Sixteen, which has, of course, 16 voices.
We begin with Jackson’s “Stabat Mater,” written for The Marian Consort in 2017. The piece starts with a cry of pain in the form of dense, intense chords. Jackson uses a fluid structure, moving from single lines to translucent polyphonic textures to moments of dense intense pain, with his familiar undulating chant-inflected vocal lines often present. The Marian Consort gives a wonderfully intense yet precise performance, with superb placement in the dense chords and expressive solo moments.
The ensemble follows this piece with Palestrina’s motet “Super flumina Babylonis.” They bring the same focused, concentrated sound to the Palestrina as to the Gabriel Jackson, creating a contained, melancholy performance.
Palestrina’s “Stabat Mater” is a setting of the iconic text for two four-part choirs. There is hardly any polyphony; instead, Palestrina uses homophonic interaction between the two choirs to ensure the primacy of the text. The ensemble gives a very poised performance, and a true consortium, one with the eight individual voices clearly expressed. This creates a remarkable intimacy, yet a real directness too. So the words are completely clear, particularly as the speed is relatively slow, making the piece rather stately.
Allegri’s “Miserere” exists in multiple versions, and his 17th-century original is far different from the one known today. It was also written for two choirs, but one with five voices and one with four. The Marian Consort unfortunately uses the traditional version, with the top C, which was introduced during the 20th century, rather than a more coherent edition such as the one created by Ben Byram-Wigfield for The Sixteen. That said, performing the work with single voices creates a very concentrated feel, with some lovely, shapely phrases. The overall tempo is quite steady, but I found the base pulse of the chant a little too much so. Choir Two, the solo quartet, is placed quite distant, creating an acoustic aura. Technically this is superb, with the sopranos’ high Cs like pinpoints.
This piece is followed by an artful account of Palestrina’s “Ave Maria.” Again, the phrases are beautifully shaped, but overall I found it rather slow.
For the final work on the disc, we return to the 21st century with James MacMillan’s “Miserere,” written for The Sixteen and intended as a deliberate complement to Allegri’s setting of the same text. MacMillan starts with the lower voices, low and dark. Essentially lyrical, this is highly concentrated music.
The men are followed by the upper voices, intense and with great clarity of texture. The use of single voices gives a different focus to MacMillan’s fascinating manipulation of texture throughout the piece. The louder sections have a very focused intensity, while the quieter, more relaxed sections are intimate, with superb attention to the shape of phrases.
While the performances of the Palestrina and Allegri are highly creditable, it is the Gabriel Jackson and the James MacMillan that I will return to as The Marian Consort gives performances of remarkable focus, technical poise, and intensity.
The Marian Consort: Charlotte Ashley, Gwendolen Martin, Rachel Ambrose Evans, Cecilia Osmond, Helen Charlston, Hannah Cooke, Guy Cutting, Ashley Turnell, Michael Craddock, Edmund Saddington.
Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article, slightly edited, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.