This is a fascinating collection of madrigals from various eras, composed to poems written as early as the 15th century. All pertain either to love or roses. Twentieth-and 21st-century compositions by Paul Mealor, Gustav Hoist, James MacMillan, and Morten Lauridson are combined with madrigals from the 15th through 17th centuries.
The Con Anima Chamber Choir was founded in 2001 in Aberdeen, Scotland. On this disc, the sopranos are wonderful but there is a lack of robust alto and tenor sound. However, Con Anima’s careful execution of each piece seems to add character. The group’s music director is Welsh composer and conductor Paul Mealor, who teaches composition at the University of Aberdeen. Since some of his music, which was played at the 2011 Westminster Abbey wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, was seen on worldwide television, his star has risen.
The early composers are a motley bunch. Vincenzo Ruffo was a priest who was influential in the reform of church music. Claudio Monteverdi was a full-time musician who became a priest in his old age. Girolamo Scotto was a wealthy publisher, John Ward was a lawyer, and John Wilbye the most famous English madrigalist. Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife and her lover quite openly because, as a member of the nobility, he was beyond the reach of the law. It only proves that you cannot tell much about the composer’s personality from his music. Gesualdo had a wonderful talent, but you would not want to meet him in a dark alley. Scotto was a fine publisher who did a great deal for music by distributing it. His compositions are of considerably less import.
Gustav Holst is more commonly remembered for orchestral compositions, but he wrote quite a few beautiful songs. Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, with a text by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is only one among many. Mealor has a different setting of the same exquisite poem, and the two make an interesting combination.
Comparative recordings can only be found a piece or group at a time. Morten Lauridsen’s Fire Songs are sung with clear but rather colorless tone on a Hyperion disc called Lux Aeterna. The Aberdeen group has a wider range of color. There is another fine recording of Wilbye’s Lady, When I Behold the Roses that features Pro Cantione Antiqua on two Warner compact discs. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants also give a fine performance of Luci serene e chiare (Eyes, Serene and Clear) on a Harmonia Mundi recording. Mealor’s madrigals are also to be heard on A Tender Light, a Decca recording featuring Tenebrae directed by Nigel Short.
The engineers at Divine Art have done well in making you feel as though you are in a small hall listening to this wonderful choir