Margaret Rizza (b. 1929) has had one short work on a compilation of Marian music reviewed by J. F. Weber in 31:6, but the present CD marks her introduction to these pages in the form of an entire disc devoted to her music. Thus, a few biographical comments will likely be in order here. She studied at the Royal College of Music and also at the National School of Opera before continuing her training at institutions in Rome and Siena. She sang under the professional name of Margaret Lensky for 25 years before accepting a position as professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London for about 17 years. During this time, she also founded and conducted a number of choral groups including the London Camerata and the Gaudete Ensemble, making numerous recordings with the latter. Beginning in 1986, she became involved in the World Community for Christian Meditation, leading many retreats, prayer and music days, and workshops of various sorts. It was only after this lengthy career that she began composing (in 1997) and so all of her music may be considered late works. As a composer, she seems to have sprung forth fully developed, as Athena from the mind of Zeus.
Given her experience in meditative sessions, it is no surprise that these works are cast in this style. The opening of Veni Jesu, in fact, led me to believe that she also was looking back in her compositional style to the chants of more than a millennium ago, as it opens with unaccompanied unison lines that sound extremely chant-like. Before long, however, the mixed chorus branches out into four or more parts that are cast in a more contemporary sounding (even if thoroughly tonal) style of writing. Even then, the piece continues to revert to chant-inspired unison passages from time to time. Fire of Love is equally meditative in the mood it creates, but employs several solo strings in its accompaniment as well as a solo soprano. (Other accompanying instruments heard in the program include oboe, clarinet, and organ.) It’s a really lovely and quiet piece, such as would cause any Christian listening to it to reflect on the attributes of God. The text here is drawn from the writings of the 16th-century mystic St. John of the Cross. Other texts employed herein range from Scripture to Antiphons of the Church to Hildegard von Bingen, and all are based on Christian themes. Rizza is skilled in melding these texts to the most exquisite music. The provided texts also provide an opportunity for anyone inclined to follow along and meditate on the texts while listening to this gorgeous music.
Indeed, each piece seems more beautiful that the preceding; Rizza’s palette of harmonies and melodies is a rich and inspired one. She seems clearly a product of the English choral tradition, and consequently anyone fond of the choral works of Holst, Rutter, Ireland, and other like-minded choral composers ought to relish these works as well. A particularly magical moment occurs at the end of Mary slept where the piece ends on a cluster of notes, tonal but absolutely breathtaking in its complexity.
The choir is of a chamber size, ranging from four to six singers per part, and sings with warmth and accuracy throughout. As is common in the English choral tradition, vibrato is kept to a minimum, and Eamonn Dougan leads the proceedings with a sure hand (or baton, as the case may be). Warmly recommended to adherents of richly Romantic choral music.