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St. Paul’s Choir School’s ‘Ave Maria’ can soothe a savage world

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Immensely talented boy's choir releases a second album that offers a sublime listening experience.

If choir music is already a unique musical alternative in today’s world, one that stands athwart a sea of complex and variegated musical styles in favor of something still and serene, the Boston-based St. Paul’s Choir School is doubly unique. Made up of boys in grades 4 to 8, the choir is billed as “the only Catholic boys choir school in the United States.”

But choirmaster John Robinson has added to their distinctiveness once more, because the angelic singing of St. Paul’s Choir School is, taken on its own musical merits, truly beautiful. It’s no surprise that the choir has performed “from Carnegie Hall to St. Peter’s Square at a papal audience for Pope Francis to Red Sox and Celtics games.” Their talent is immediately evident.

Christmas in Harvard Square, the choir’s 2014 international debut album for AimHigher Recordings, expanded that experience to a wider audience. The Wall Street Journal hailed the album as “uplifting, hypnotic music that melts holiday stress,” and the choir received national coverage on Good Morning America, PBS, and CBS This Morning.

Now, the choir has released a second album with AimHigher, Ave Maria, a radiant 18-song collection available in time for the Church’s celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. Recorded in the natural acoustics of St. Paul’s in Harvard Square, the album is filled works by better-known composers like Vivaldi, but also includes two meditative Gregorian chants, “Reges Tharsis” (“The Kings of Tarshish”) and “Dignus est Agnus” (“Worthy Is the Lamb”). The mostly Latin compositions are rounded out by two songs in English (Handel’s “Angels Ever Bright and Fair” and Stanford’s “A Song of Wisdom”) and another – a sublime, stand-out performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Virgin mother of God”) from his “All-Night Vigil” – in Russian.

The liner notes of the CD version also provide English translations of every song, revealing the fascinating inspiration behind them. Some, like Josef Rheinberger’s rendition of the Hail Mary, are unsurprising, but there are also a few darker songs about the “hour of death,” including a piece from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, Bach’s “Bist du bei mir” (“When You are with me, I go with joy to death and to my rest”) and “Stabat Mater dolororsa” (whose lyrics are simply: “The sorrowful mother stood near the cross, tearful, as her Son hung”).

The subtleties in the works and their histories are gathered under Robinson’s direction into a unified whole, one that enters into both the joy and suffering of divine love. “We talk often here of how the sheer beauty of music invites us to the deeper truths of life,” the Pastor of St. Paul’s, himself a former member of the boys choir, reflects in the liner notes – and Ave Maria is clear proof of that.

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