Officium Divinum (CR022)
Review by Marjorie Johnston, The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians
The music of composer Margaret Rizza is featured on this recording, which covers four periods of daily prayer: morning, midday, evening, and night. Ms. Rizza credits Tim Ruffer, the Head of Publishing at the Royal School of Church Music, for the concept, and it may indeed be a good teaching tool for young choristers learning about the Daily Office.
The pieces within each section are purposefully ordered to represent the passing of the hours of the day. MORNING begins with “The Night Has Passed,” opening (or awakening) with fute over an organ pedal point. Violin and voices enter, and the piece becomes a slow crescendo into the celebration of a new day. “Open Thou My Eyes” is an a cappella prayer “for our hearts to be inclined towards the desire for God” as the day begins. The lovely singing of soprano soloist Gilly Franklin is supported by the choir’s harmonic underpinning. This is my favorite piece on the disc, with solid, mostly homophonic choral writing, sometimes with either Ms. Franklin or one section “soloed out” as if on an organ. In “Dedication,” one can definitely hear a Taizéinfluence. I noted that the familiar style would be suitable for a healing service, and then I read in the liner notes that Ms. Rizza’s compositions are often used at healing services, on retreats, in prayer groups, or in the context of hospital visits and hospice care. She says the music here is meant to support “those undergoing life-changing experiences.” “The Song of Zechariah (Benedictus)” is for choir and organ, and it’s the first piece on the disc to open with a full sonority—a welcome surprise. The well-written adaptation of the familiar Luke passage is by Anne Harrison, and the “Benedictus” is stated in a returning antiphon: Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel quia visitavit et fecit redemptionem plebis suae: Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, because He has visited us and wrought redemption for His people.
The first piece representing MIDDAY, “Blessed Bread,” has a secular sound with the choir singing ooos and ahs, and it took me back to the 1970s when Rachmaninoff melodies were lifted for pop tunes. It’s another offering in the Taizé style with a soprano descant and variations for the violin and cello. The piece is not to my taste, but I can see how, in some settings, it could find its place. The same goes for “The Real Presence”, with its somewhat banal rhymes; but maybe it seemed less fulfilling since it is followed on the disc by the George Herbert paraphrase of “The Twenty-Third Psalm”. I did like the Whitacre-esque a cappella setting here. The composer says that she has an a affinity for Herbert’s poetry, “where he describes with wonderful intimacy and simplicity the love that God lavishes on me.” The last midday piece is “Gloria in Excelsis”, scored for SATB choir with soprano descant, organ, cello, and trumpet. The harmonic progressions are simple, but the “big finish” dresses it up.
EVENING: “Let my prayer rise before you” opens with a mystical organ introduction that successfully conjures the image of rising incense, but my focus turned secular again when the cello came in with a familiar melody. (Ms. Rizza probably doesn’t even know the Diana Ross song—It’s My Turn with music by Michael Masser, but that’s what I heard.) The soloists’ chant-like recitative is interspersed with a choral refrain repeating the opening text. Each section of this piece carries some appeal, but I never quite understood how they all tied together musically.
“Sweet dreams form a shade” is next in the Evening tracks; this William Blake poem makes for a nice lullaby setting. e bittersweet foreshadowing found in the text is not matched by the music, but the setting is pleasant and could be used in a contemplative Christmas service. “Song of Mary” is next. It is an adapted text in a simple setting recommended for small choirs, and might be sung just by treble voices. The last piece for Evening is “Kindle in our heart,”, which returns to the Taizé style, building in intensity and volume toward a conclusion with trumpet.
NIGHT: I found the first offering for Night Prayer satisfying. “Before the ending of the day” is a piece that could work well in a Compline service or on a choir retreat. The writing here shows the composer’s talent for creating a calm atmosphere, and could serve as a balm for tired, overworked vocal cords! In “Keep me as the apple of your eye”, the gentle sound of the organ is almost like a synthesizer. A guitar plucks out the chords, and several instruments accompany the chant of the choir. The effect of the piece is subjective: some will feel prayerful or pensive; others may anticipate a massage! There’s a sincerity in the “Song of Simeon” that skillfully depicts the joy and gratitude Simeon felt when he first encountered “the presence of the Saviour promised by God.” The Night section and the CD end with “Night Prayers”. A metallophone is the perfect choice to “depict the ticking away of time,” and the Convivium Singers’ unison singing is graceful and elegant, leading to the conclusion: “Christ my eyelids close”.
In all honesty, I don’t know that I will find a use for the works recorded here; but for those who will, it is all published by the RSCM. In choosing hymns, I try not make selections based solely on personal taste, and I try to use the same discipline in choosing CDs to review. I do listen for high quality performances and recordings that will fill a niche for some of my AAM colleagues.
Ms. Rizza feels that much of her music is well suited to smaller choirs with limited resources, yet the exquisite singing and the remarkable acoustic of Portsmouth Cathedral really make a difference on this disc. Ms. Rizza is a professional singer herself, so her compositional style is easy on the voice and on the ear. This recording features the kind of music one might enjoy but not be able to articulate why. Her experience as a pastoral caregiver is extensive, and I believe that is communicated through this music. The conductor for “Officium Dominum” is Eamonn Dougan, who also serves as Associate Conductor and as a bass with the renowned choral ensemble The Sixteen. One can get a different taste of Ms. Rizza’s work by listening to her “Ave Generosa,” written for e Sixteen in 2007.