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Choral works/Cecilia McDowall (Epoch CDLX 7146)

The comments on this most enjoyable and accessible CD are those of one with a background in popular music who has enjoyed, as a camp follower for several years, performances by the Weald Choir where his wife sings.

Composition
There are four works. Three last for about 12 minutes and the more multi-structured "Magnificat" is about 25 minutes long. The compositions are sympathetic to both performers and listener. The vocal range is neither too demanding nor too complex rhythmically, which suits the ears of this listener. There is no danger of rhythms sounding gimmicky or of melodic changes being made purely for effect; everything seems purposeful. There is a spirituality in these works which surpasses the fact that they are largely "sacred music" and use Latin texts.

"Magnificat" is the longest work and features some demanding (on this listener) vocal harmonies which resolve happily. Orchestral accompaniment complements the vocals with subtlety. Individual instruments are given room to breathe – cello introduction is followed by oboe then violins. Bassoon (and bass or cello?) underscore the mezzo solo. Track 4 is a slow section, with subdued woodwind, which requires singers to hold long notes. If analogies are appropriate, please excuse my limited knowledge. Gorecki came to mind here, as did Bernstein in the more rhythmic preceding section, with interludes like a Shostakovich film score in track 2 and a Josquin motet after the soprano/mezzo duet. It seems good that a work should offer such diverse suggestions, yet retain its freshness and originality.

The charming Christmas cantata, "Christus natus est", incorporates five lesser-known carols including *Infant holy, infant lowly" performed by singers from Parmiter’s School. Inclusion in the repertoire of local choirs should encourage closer links with schools with all the opportunities this offers for widening the audience for choral music and its pool of performers.

The final "Fancy of folksongs", accompanied by solo harp, lightens the mood. As folk music, this sounds familiar and accessible. Wider acquaintance will give choirs a useful addition for concert programmes which feature works more demanding on listener and performer.

Performance
Canterbury Chamber Choir and Orchestra Nova perform with spirit and confidence, particularly where the rhythm changes. These sound like performers who both feel the rhythm and watch the conductor, rather than bury their noses in the score. In popular music, the performance of these changes would be described as "tight"; I expect that there is a more erudite term in this context. The balance between accompaniment and singers is good and I found the ensemble singing most enjoyable. Sopranos, though the largest group by 2, are not over dominant.

Packaging
The insert design, from an attractive and colourful work on the City of London, looks like an impression of light through stained glass. There is a full and informative leaflet with notes by the conductor and the composer on how the pieces came to be composed and what inspired them, as well as profiles of the performers.

Favourite Piece
Ave maris stella – this piece really flows. There is a sense of rising and falling in the movement between choir, soprano solo, orchestra playing with more complex rhythm, bass voices, orchestra, soprano solo, orchestra, In the ensemble sections, there is effective use of sopranos’ top G which becomes top A just before the dramatically sudden end. The accompaniment features an interesting change of rhythm just before halfway through, which becomes quieter, less urgent, over time. There are unusual but attractive string harmonies.

This CD deserves a wide audience, particularly among those responsible for the selection of choirs’ repertoires. All of these works deserve to be performed widely and regularly and I’m most happy to have been introduced to them. I commend them to you.

The composer’s website is at www.ceciliamcdowall.co.uk

Copyright © John Scott Cree 2005

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