Contemporary sacred strains
Roderic Dunnett on recent concerts of old and new music

For a whole concert on the South Bank in London to be given over to one composer, he or she must have achieved a certain standing. Cecilia McDowall has just received an honour of this kind at the Purcell Room, where her music was sung by the Choir of St Pancras Parish Church, directed by Christopher Batchelor. It is clear that she has achieved a vast amount since turning to full-time composing scarcely a dozen years ago.

She has achieved eminence in many genres, which have led to more than one nomination for the British Composer Awards, but sacred music plays a substantial part in her output. A recording of her Three Latin Motets recently won a Grammy Award; her music has been sung by, among others, Durham, Liverpool, Westminster, and St Paul’s Cathedral choirs, and also by the Choir of Westminster Abbey (her St Cecilia’s Day anthem was sung by the last three all together). She is currently composer-in-residence at Dulwich College.

John Donne, St Francis, and St Bernard of Clairvaux are among those whose words she has set. (Others include John Clare, John Masefield, George Herbert, and Thomas Traherne.) Her Magnificat, in six sections, and Stabat Mater are works of both length and substance; her Canterbury Mass and a range of beautifully crafted carols (such as Christus natus est) are achieving wide popularity. She has composed exquisite and finely nuanced Marian anthems, four of which played a part in this concert. She has also contributed an organ chorale prelude to an intriguing project designed to “complete” Bach’s unfinished Orgelbüchlein.

So McDowall is a composer who has made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to church and concert hall alike. Here, her Marian motets were interspersed with sections of the Canterbury Mass. The Kyries had an attractive medieval feel, while the Gloria setting is alive and spontaneous — indeed, the music positively dances at “Cum Sancto Spiritu”. The Sanctus made attractive use of the upper voices and tenors, with basses reserved for “Pleni sunt coeli”, which made way for some buoyant Osannas.

I was impressed by McDowall’s texturing: there is plenty going on, and yet the overall impression is always clear and lucid. The Benedictus was beautifully shaped — tender, transparent, and lovingly sung, here leading to a restrained Osanna. The composer endows the Agnus Dei with immense calm: it is a kind of journey, in which the voices seem yearningly to search for the “Miserere nobis” and for the final “Dona nobis pacem”. This was as beautifully and stylishly sung as any part of the recital.

Her setting of the Regina Coeli is rhythmically alive, with an energetic forward thrust offset by contrasted moments of calm, both of which put one in mind of Poulenc. Together with Ave Maria, which makes use of rich, clustering added-note chords, and some striking rises and falls in both the melody and lower lines, it gave one a sense of a clear personality and individuality to McDowall’s musical language.

Ave Regina is a gorgeously serene setting, again with some almost sensual harmonies; while Alma Redemptoris Mater, with its use of parallel fourths, seems to hark back to the 13th century, and to medieval formats such as the lithe, flowing conductus. There was an attractive spareness to the girls’ penitent “peccatorum” near the unexpectedly jaunty ending. I found pleasure, too, in the vivid parallelings between upper and lower voices, and the dramatically effective broken short phrases midway through “Psallite Domino”, with finely graded lingering alleluias gradually fading to nothing.

One of Cecilia McDowall’s future commissions is an intriguing one: for a concert to celebrate the centenary of Captain Scott’s fatal last expedition, she is composing a work entitled Seventy Degrees Below Zero, a setting of words from Scott’s last letter to his widow, Kathryn. It will be heard at Sym­phony Hall, Birmingham, during 2012.