Composer and multi-talented musician Margaret Rizza introduces this recording with the words of St. Paul to the Romans: “Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed.” Romans 12:2, (The New English Bible). Listening with an open mind and a cleansed musical palette added to my appreciation of Mrs. Rizza’s compositions, as did the splendid singing by The Gaudete Ensemble.
The opening track, Veni Jesu, immediately showcases a unique gift for writing chant lines that can have pace, direction, and texture, without losing the essence of plainchant. Fire of Love presents verses by 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross, adapted by Mrs. Rizza. Without context or coaching, one could easily misinterpret the divine union that is sought with the Holy Spirit for a much more secular consuming fire of love. There are beautiful, yearning string interludes between the verses sung by solo tenor and soprano, and the underpinning of supportive choral singing is unobtrusive and effective. I was especially taken with this piece, and fear that I have not done it justice with this brief description; I encourage colleagues to give this a listen with the words of St. Paul to the Romans noted above in mind.
Mrs. Rizza shares settings of three of the seven “O Antiphons” for Advent. The chant presented in the opening petitions of the first two antiphons significantly contrasts with the expanded harmonies that follow. To my ear, the third setting – O Oriens (O Morning Star) – has just the right pairing of the styles. Even if these works were not designed to be sung in a service, I believe O Oriens could definitely be useful during Advent or Epiphany, with its drenching, sonorous choral sounds enhancing the text for the listeners. The development from simple to complex works especially well on Mrs. Rizza’s adaptation of Thomas Merton’s Mary Slept from his book on mysticism, The Ascent to Truth. There is extensive text painting on the word “flooded”, and the whole piece is very affecting. It ends similarly to the way it began with a cluster chord sung on the word, “silence”. “My work is birthed through silence,” Mrs. Rizza has said in an interview. “It is rooted in this way of prayer….”
The next tracks, Ave Generosa and O Speculum Columbe are reverent settings of texts by Hildegard von Bingen. The title track was commissioned by Harry Christophers for The Sixteen in 2007. The writing for one or two voices is striking; excellent SATB writing is not difficult to find, but composers who can successfully write in a chant style are not as common. And in O Speculum Columbe, I particularly liked the stacked entrances that build into a held chord, with chant emerging to introduce the Antiphon for St. John the Evangelist.
Seeing that Mrs. Rizza is a product of the Royal College of Music did not come as a surprise, but I was astonished to learn that her study at the National School of Opera, with continued education in Siena and Rome, led to a 25 year career as an operatic singer. She performed under the name Margaret Lensky for 20th century musical icons including Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, and Benjamin Britten. She also taught at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London from 1977-1994, where she introduced her students to altruistic community work by taking groups to prisons, hospices, inner city schools, and residential medical centers. The Gaudete Ensemble featured on this recording is one of several groups that Mrs. Rizza founded and directed over the years, though she did not begin composing until 1997 when she was invited to write music for an international conference. She was about 68 years old at the time, and is now approaching her 93rd birthday. I am grateful to have been introduced to this marvelous musician and remarkable woman through this recording.