Major Vocal Works from Cecilia McDowall

Cecilia McDowall is a major presence in the field of choral compositions. Her work blends modern techniques with extra-musical inspirations. The results are often greater than the sum of their parts. This release presents two examples. 

The Da Vinci Requiem commemorates the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death. McDowall’s text draws from several sources. The traditional Latin Requiem Mass provides the framework. 

Into that text, as if in dialogue, McDowall inserts observations on life and death by Da Vinci. She also includes lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “For ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’, by Leonardo da Vinci.”

The music ebbs and flows as these texts engage in conversation. This isn’t necessarily a somber work, but it is a mysterious one. The music is fluid, and almost in soft-focus. McDowell seems to be saying that no one has a clear idea of the nature of life and death. Not even Leonardo. 

The Wimbledon Choral commissioned the work and premiered it. Safe to say, this is an authoritative performance. The requiem is all about atmosphere. The choral’s blend of voices delivers that perfectly. 

70 Degrees Below Zero was commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and the City of London Sinfonia. The work was part of a festival marking the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott’s death. Scott of the Antarctic is best remembered for his heroic but ill-fated polar expedition.

McDowell asked poet Seán Street to create texts based on Scott’s expedition letters and journals. In the first part of the work, the text expresses the excitement and joy of the expedition’s early discoveries. But the music tells a different story. Like a Greek hero, we know Scott’s fate. We know how his story will end. 

And McDowell conveys that subtly through her orchestrations. The final movement is the most moving. It sets parts of Scott’s final letter to his wife. It’s tragic, and yet somehow transcendent. Tenor Benjamin Hulett makes this music work. He effectively conveys the wide range of emotions contained in the text. And lets us hear the change in Scott as he slowly realizes how dire his situation has become. 

Two standout works. Two standout performances. 

Cecilia McDowall: Da Vinci Requiem
70 Degrees Below Zero
Wimbledon Choral
Kate Royal; Benjamin Hulett; Roderick Williams
City of London Sinfonia; Neil Ferris, director
Signum Classics SIGCD749

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