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Song of Songs
William WALTON (1902-1983) Set me as a seal upon thine heart (1938) [3:32]
Guillaume BOUZIGNAC (1592-1641) Surge, amica mea [2:00]
Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947) Rise up, my love (2002) [10:38]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) I am the Rose of Sharon (2001) [6:13}
Francis GRIER (b. 1955) Dilectus meus mihi (1987) [7:20]
John DUNSTAPLE (c 1390-1453) Quam Pulchra es (ca 1430) [1:49]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525-1594) Descendi in hortum meum (1584) [2:42]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Vadem et circuibo civitatem (1572)[9:58]
Jean Yves DANIEL-LESUR (1908-2002) La cantique des cantiques (1952) [21:35]
Laudibus/Michael Brewer
rec. 14-15 January 2006, St. Giles the Martyr, Kentish Town, London. DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34042 [65:50]


This fascinating programme brings together an eclectic mix of unaccompanied choral pieces composed between about 1430 and 2002. Inevitably, there’s a wide range of musical styles but what unites the music is that all the pieces are settings of verses from that unique book of the Old Testament, The Song of Songs. Another thing that binds the programme together is the virtuoso singing of Laudibus under the inspiring direction of Michael Brewer. This choir of young singers, comprising ten sopranos, seven female altos, eight tenors and six basses, is a marvellously flexible ensemble, capable of adapting easily and idiomatically to the differing styles of music in what is a hugely demanding programme.

So in the earliest piece, Dunstaple’s Quam Pulchra es there’s what I’d term a cultivated roughness in the tone, which is not overdone yet is highly appropriate. This piece is a processional for three voices and I was a little surprised by how lively the music is. From there, chronologically, we move to the polyphonists of sixteenth-century Italy and Spain. Brewer achieves an exquisite purity of sound in Palestrina’s wonderful piece and his choir serves Victoria’s extensive anthem equally well.

Roughly contemporaneous with these two pieces – there’s no date of composition in Anthony Burton’s excellent notes – is the six-voice Surge, amica mea by the French composer Guillaume Bouzignac. This music – and composer – was completely new to me. It’s an urgent setting and the performance here has real spring. As in everything else on this disc the internal balance between the parts is superbly achieved.

The remainder of the programme comprises twentieth-century music but the menu is extremely varied. Best-known is Walton’s fine wedding anthem, Set me as a seal upon thine heart. Off hand I can’t recall hearing a finer performance than this one by Laudibus. Mike Brewer adopts a nice, broad speed and this, plus the skill of his young singers, means that every line of the texture registers clearly. The unnamed tenor and soprano soloists are excellent.

The work by Howard Skempton consists of four short movements. It was written for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the second movement in particular shows that national influence: it’s set for basses, divided into three parts, singing against a drone by the tenors which is monotonous, in the true sense of the word. Laudibus’s young basses may not possess the cavernous tone of Eastern European basses but, singing softly, they are fully up to the task that Skempton sets them. The third movement is for sopranos and altos, singing sensuous close harmony in four parts. The outer movements are for full choir. It’s a very beautiful set of pieces and I enjoyed getting to know it.

Gabriel Jackson’s I am the Rose of Sharon is another very interesting piece. It was originally written for five solo voices and this doubtless explains the often florid ornamentation of single lines. The full choir version that’s performed here was made later by Jackson himself and it seems to work very well. In places the writing is pretty spare in texture and has something of the feel of medieval music. Elsewhere the harmonies must be the very devil to sing accurately, let alone with the conviction that’s apparent here.

Francis Grier’s Dilectus meus mihi is another virtuoso offering. The music is in up to eight parts but Grier employs solo voices and a semi chorus to produce a wide ranging variety of texture. Indeed, the differing textures, ranging from rich to spare, bring great fascination to the piece. It sounds to be very difficult music but these singers deliver it with seemingly effortless virtuosity. As an example of Grier’s vivid aural imagination sample the amazingly descriptive harmonies he employs on the word "langueo" [track 8, 4:40].

The recital culminates in La cantique des cantiques by Daniel-Lesur. It’s no surprise to learn from the notes that this French composer was, with Olivier Messiaen, a co-founder of the Jeune France group in 1936. There’s another link with Messiaen in that La cantique des cantiques was dedicated to Marcel Couraud and his Vocal Ensemble. These performers had also been responsible for the première of Messiaen’s Cinq réchants. Daniel-Lesur’s piece is no less demanding than Messiaen’s work, not least because often the writing divides into as many as twelve parts.

There are seven movements, all of which are rich and complex. There’s often a most definite erotic flavour to the music, which is highly appropriate to the subject matter. I think it helps also that the text is in French, which is such a wonderfully evocative and subtle language. The fifth movement, ‘Le Jardin clos’, is marvellous; I love the way in which, for much of the time, the male voices sing of the female beloved in music whose sheer sensuality is accentuated by the wordless carolling of the women’s voices. At the other extreme, the fourth movement, ‘Le Roi Solomon’, depicts the arrival of the king and the urgency and excitement of the music graphically illustrates his importance. The seventh and final movement, ‘Epithalame’, is a wedding song. It begins softly but the music quickly gathers in volume and intensity and as the movement progresses the increasingly dense textures are capped by stratospheric soprano lines. At the very end the word "Alleluia" is sung repeatedly and ecstatically. Throughout the piece Daniel-Lesur’s skill in writing for unaccompanied voices is most impressive. For the most part the performers are required just to sing but in the sixth movement, ‘La Sulamite’, some of the choir punctuate the music with percussive vocal sounds; these are highly effective. It’s a remarkable work and though it’s not always easy listening the music amply repays the attentive listener.

In this work by Daniel-Lesur the assurance and collective virtuosity of Laudibus is quite amazing and that’s typical of the programme as a whole. Clearly they have received expert training from Michael Brewer but as well as the technical excellence of the singing a palpable sense of commitment and enthusiasm comes across.

This is an outstanding disc and the thoughtfulness and flair behind the planning of the programme is most impressive. The recorded sound is first rate and, as I’ve already commented, the succinct notes by Anthony Burton are first rate. I’ve found this a most enjoyable and highly stimulating CD and I hope many other collectors will derive similar pleasure from it. Bravo!

John Quinn

Information received

John Quinn's very enthusiastic and kind review of this disc - for which many thanks! - does contain one misapprehension which should, perhaps be corrected. The notes are, I realise, somewhat ambiguous about this, but my piece "I am the Rose of Sharon" is not performed in a version for full choir! It has been transposed upwards, for SAATB, but it is still one-voice-to-a-part.

Gabriel Jackson


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