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Mcdowall: Laudate, Radnor Songs, A Canterbury Mass, Five Seasons / Nicholls, Allen, Vass, Orchestra Nova

Release Date: 09/08/2009 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7230   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Cecilia McDowall
Performer:  Katherine [Mezzo Soprano] AllenRachel NichollsIlid JonesSuzanne Willison-Kawalec
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra Nova
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

C. MCDOWaLL Laudate. 1 I have done what is mine to do. 2 Now may we singen. 2 Radnor Songs. 3 A Canterbury Mass. 2 Five Seasons 4 George Vass, cond; Rachel Nicholls (sop); 3 Katherine Allen (mez); Read more class="SUPER12">1 City of Canterbury CCh; 1,2,4 O Nova 1,3,4 DUTTON 7230 (76:58)

Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) studied at Trinity College of Music, London. Previous Dutton discs of her music include a choral disc in 2004 (7146) and orchestral and chamber music (issued 2005, 7159). Here, Dutton offers sacred works, a program of beautiful compositions rooted in the English cathedral tradition. McDowall’s harmonic writing is expressive, sometimes spiky and angular, always aspirational. There is only one McDowall piece on the Fanfare Archive, and that is a flute piece, The moon dances ( Fanfare 32:5).

One of the first things to strike one about this disc is the quality of the recording (the producer was Michael Ponder; venues are either St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, or St. Clement’s Church, Sandwich, Kent). The acoustic of St. Jude-on-the-Hill suits the Stravinskian trumpet fanfares, a kind of toned-down Agon that opens the 2008 Laudate perfectly. The work is scored for mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus, and chamber orchestra and is a setting of Psalm 112. McDowall’s clear talent for memorable, haunting lines becomes clear with the entrance of the young mezzo soloist Katherine Allen. The overlapping trumpet fanfares punctuate the lyrical sections. A pastoral oboe sings the opening of the central movement, “Excelsus super omnes gentes Dominum,” before Allen takes center stage. The movement is a plane of stillness, the oboe returning to interact with the solo voice. The finale, “Suscitans a terra inopem,” is more jaunty. Again, those trumpets act as a marker, this time within an overall feel of joy and optimism.

Two unaccompanied choral works follow. The first is an anthem, I have done what is mine to do , written to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of the Reverend Canon Dr. Peter Sills (vice dean of Ely) in 2006. The mood here is restrained. The City of Canterbury Chamber Choir sings magnificently. Control and balance are in perfect harmony. The Christmassy element of the carol, Now may we singen (2007), is immediately evident. The text is a 15th-century English carol.

The clear voice of Stravinsky surfaces again in the first of the Radnor Songs (2005, revised 2009). The texts are by the poet Simon Mundy. Originally for voice and piano, the piece has been orchestrated especially for this recording. The angular vocal line of “The Buzzard” is expertly negotiated by soprano Rachel Nicholls, who uses tremendous purity of tone to render the fourth movement, “Flat Out,” most memorably. Nicholls seems to have no problem with wide leaps in general (as the penultimate song “Radnor (New)” goes on to prove). The poems evoke the history and beauty of the Welsh Border Marches.

McDowall’s Canterbury Mass was shortlisted for the Making Music category of the 2008 British Composer Awards. It is a Missa brevis that was first performed in Canterbury in 2007. The highly melismatic Kyrie precedes the bright chords that open the Gloria. Here, dancing rhythms around Laudamus te invoke a real sense of play. All credit to the sopranos for negotiating McDowall’s lines here. The hushed Agnus Dei is a touching way to close the piece. Finally, Five Seasons (2006), subtitled “a cantata to celebrate the organic landscape.” McDowall and the poet Christie Dickason visited a number of farms in the spring of 2006 and, liaising with farmers, settled upon a form that tracks the four seasons and adds a centrally placed movement, “Grace before meat (Introit)—The Darkening (Dies irae).” The work opens with “Shimmer,” a musical account of the opening out into spring, firmly placed in the English choral tradition. The third movement must have been a challenge to the composer, to set a Dies irae without the usual massive forces. McDowall darkens the textures very effectively here, her treatment of rhythm and a few obsessive accompanimental figures adding to the disturbing nature of the music. The two parts of this third movement are separately tracked. The oboe has featured fairly prominently so far, but is replaced by a mellower cor anglais for “Sheep in the Mist,” the autumn section of the work. In its stark stasis, this is the most evocative, beautiful movement of Five Seasons . The finale is the most interesting concept: “Dance for the Feast of Everything that Grows” takes its title from a Nepali festival based on respect for every living thing. It is a time where the Nepalese kill nothing, pick nothing, harvest nothing. The work ends with a Scottish “Balancing Dance.” Indeed, the Scottish folk tradition informs many elements of this movement.

A stimulating release. The production and performance standards are in every way consistent with the excellence of the Dutton label.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke
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Works on This Recording

Laudate by Cecilia McDowall
Performer:  Katherine [Mezzo Soprano] Allen (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra Nova
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 12 Minutes 33 Secs. 
Notes: Engineer: Dexter Newman. 
I have done what is mine to do by Cecilia McDowall
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 2 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Notes: Engineer: Michael Ponder. 
Now may we singen by Cecilia McDowall
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 3 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Notes: Engineer: Michael Ponder. 
Radnor Songs by Cecilia McDowall
Performer:  Rachel Nicholls (Soprano)
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra Nova
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 15 Minutes 29 Secs. 
Notes: Engineer: Dexter Newman. 
A Canterbury Mass by Cecilia McDowall
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 15 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Notes: Engineer: Michael Ponder. 
Five Seasons by Cecilia McDowall
Performer:  Ilid Jones (Oboe), Suzanne Willison-Kawalec (Harp)
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra Nova
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 25 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Notes: Engineer: Dexter Newman. 

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