Lent at Ephesus is the fourth or fifth recording from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, each of them a best-seller. A press release I read about the present album said that it had sold more copies than any piece of music in the history of the planet about eight months before Decca released the disc. Or something like that. I believe it reached the top spots on the record charts its first week of circulation. The Benediction sisters are very, very popular.
And well they should be. Their voices project a purity and innocence that would be the envy of any professional ensemble. What's more, this time out they provide a more-varied program than ever, still highly spiritual but with a greater diversity of composers, from fourteenth-century hermits to Gregorian Chants to traditional hymns, sung in English and Latin and whatever. Better yet, their new disc delivers more material than ever, this one providing twenty-three tracks and clocking in at over seventy-eight minutes, very nearly the limit for a compact disc. That's almost twice the music of their previous albums and a very generous offering, indeed.
Anyway, you'll recall that, as they note in the booklet insert, "the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles is a monastic community located in rural Missouri. Consecrated to the Queen of Apostles, their lives are dedicated to contemplative prayer especially for priests. They support themselves primarily by making priestly vestments. Professing full obedience to the Church's teaching, the community upholds a loving commitment to preserving the liturgical heritage of the Church in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and traditional monastic Office."
As I said about them in a past review, they "possess voices of the sweetest purity. While there may be no obvious virtuosos among them (or if there are, they would be too modest to admit it), as a group they continue to sing like angels, their voices harmonizing with celestial precision." They continue in this manner throughout Lent at Ephesus (Lent being the annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter). The Sisters further tell us that "St. Benedict reminds us that the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent; a life centered around the Cross of Christ. Lent is the season in which we are invited to give our lives to the Lord as He gave His own for us." Nevertheless, whether you are a religious person or not, the Sisters present the songs on the album in such movingly passionate a manner, they would be hard even for even the most-unrepentant sinner to resist.
While individual listeners will have their own favorite numbers among the nearly two dozen offerings found here, of course, I couldn't help pick out a few of my own to share. The first few tracks, "Jesus, My Love," "Christus factus est," and "God of Mercy and Compassion," all reflect the kind of purity and innocence the Sisters' voices convey. There is a simple grace about their presentation that is quite affecting. "Hosanna to the Son of David" is more ambitious, and the harmonies are heavenly.
And so it goes, each track as lovely as the others. The choir's articulation and intonation sound spot on, yet they never appear stuffy or pedantic in their approach. Their voices always float gracefully, and they gently caress the ear. This may be the best album the Sisters have yet made.
Blanton Alspaugh produced and edited the music and Mark Donahue engineered, mixed, and mastered it for De Montfort Music and Decca Classics. They recorded it at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in November, 2013. Maybe it's the miking, but the Sisters sound as though they're in a much bigger hall than they probably really are in. In any case, the room resonance complements their voices, helping them sound rich and smooth while doing nothing to impair their definition. Indeed, the sound is quite flattering, a welcome treat from some vocal recordings that can sound bright and forward. Here, the voices are natural and lifelike, with a touch of depth and dimensionality to put the listener further into the acoustic environment.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: