The Florida-based vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire has long been noted for its programming, and Ave Marial is its greatest achievement yet. The Ave Maria title accurately reflects the album’s devotion to music about the Virgin Mary, but the Gregorian Chant subtitle requires further elucidation: Of the 18 tracks here, eight are not chant (seven polyphonic works, one chordal piece) and at least three of the chants (two Ambrosian, one Iberian) are definitely outside the slippery category of “Gregorian.” Even within that category, we get a broadly defined array.
This is a good thing: Listeners get to compare styles from four countries across at least eight centuries in a thematically unified repertoire. Director Patrick Dupré Quigley adds further variety by switching up men’s or women’s voices in the chant, and by usually alternating chant and polyphony. Despite the variety, the program coheres quite well to 21st-century ears. The centerpiece of the program, of course, is des Prez’s Ave Maria, with its appropriately serene yet majestic beauty. Seraphic Fire’s smoothly blended sound is apt for this music, making it pleasurable even for non-aficionados.