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The Lost City - Lamentations Through the Ages
Cecilia McDOWALL (b. 1951)
The Lord is Good [5:45]
Pablo CASALS (1876-1973)
O vos omnes [3:35]
Dominique PHINOT (c. 1510-c. 1556)
Lamentations [11:22]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Ye that pass by (No. 7 from Sacred and Profane, Op. 91) [2:00]
John DUGGAN (b. 1963)
Lamentations [15:54]
Pablo ORTIZ (b. 1956)
O vos omnes (No2. 2 from Five Motets)[1:45]
John MUNDY (c. 1555-1630)
De Lamentatione Jeremiae (Ed. and reconstructed, Francis Steele) [9:49]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (1872-1958)
O vos omnes [5:38]
Rudolf MAUERSBERGER (1889-1971)
Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst [6:37]
Susanna Fairbairn and Miranda Laurence (sopranos); Robert Vanryne (trumpet)
Sospiri/Christopher Watson
rec. 9-12 August 2011, Église St. Laurent, Roujan, Languedoc-Roussillon, France. DDD
Texts and English translations included
NAXOS 8.573078 [62:26]

Sospiri is a vocal ensemble founded in 2006 by composer, John Duggan and the singer, Christopher Watson who, amongst other things, is a tenor with The Tallis Scholars. It would seem from their website that the group has made at least one previous CD but this is their first for Naxos and it’s a most auspicious debut on that label. Twenty-four singers (6/5/7/6) comprise the group for this recording.
 
The first thing that commends this disc to me is the imagination behind the programming. The basic concept, as will be fairly obvious from the track listing, is to bring together a selection of settings, new and old, of verses from The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet. Enterprisingly, such obvious, if splendid, musical responses such as those by Tallis and Victoria have been avoided. Instead, the selections from Renaissance polyphony are less well-known. As can be seen, the remainder of the programme ranges widely and includes two pieces - by Cecilia McDowall and by John Duggan himself - specially written for this project. The second thing that commends the disc is the quality of the singing, which is uniformly high.
 
I don’t recall previously hearing any of the music of Dominique Phinot, a Flemish composer who worked in Italy, chiefly in Pesaro, though I see that The Brabant Ensemble has recorded a disc of his music. That disc, which also includes the setting of the Lamentations, was reviewed by Gary Higginson. He was impressed by the music and if the Lamentations is typical of Phinot’s craft then I’m not surprised. The piece is scored for double choir and it’s an accomplished polyphonic setting that uses the eight vocal lines resourcefully. With his Tallis Scholars credentials Christopher Watson seems right at home in this repertoire and Sospiri’s performance is a very good one. The other polyphonic setting is by the Englishman, John Mundy. Surprisingly, in his otherwise excellent notes John Duggan makes no reference to this piece beyond a tantalising comment that the music has a “political agenda”, comparing the Reformation schism to the destruction of Jerusalem. The music has been edited and reconstructed by Francis Steele, one of Sospiri’s basses. Like the Phinot it’s well done.
 
The remainder of the programme is from the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. There are four settings of the verse ‘O vos omnes’ - Britten sets it in a medieval English translation. Of these the Vaughan Williams is, perhaps, the best known. For most of the time RVW here writes only for the high voices and there’s a wonderful purity to the modal harmonies which the singers of Sospiri convey very well. The tenors and basses are held back until late on in the piece (at 3:58 here) and that’s a minor masterstroke. The little setting by Pablo Casals is consonant and traditional in style; it’s a lovely, prayerful piece. By contrast the Britten is, in John Duggan’s words, “typically spiky and dramatic in style”. Its inclusion here is intelligent because it provides a telling contrast with much of the other repertoire on the disc. It certainly contrasts with the short setting by the Argentinian, Pablo Ortiz., who now lives and works in California. This is one of five motets that Ortiz wrote between 1991 and 1997. The present piece is subtle and gently understated. In John Duggan’s words the music “shimmers like a mirage” and the piece achieves an uncertain close. It seems to be very well done here - I say “seems” because the music is new to me - and I should like to hear the companion pieces.
 
Two pieces were written specially for this programme. Cecilia McDowall’s The Lord is Good gets the disc off to a strong start. I’ve heard quite a bit of her music, both on several discs (review review) and in concert (review) and what I’ve heard has impressed me. The Lord is Good is a fine offering. The two soprano soloists intertwine their lines throughout much of the piece above a very interesting choral background which John Duggan summarises as containing “simple, concordant harmonies [which] contrast with piquant, arid clashes.” It’s an impressive, emotive composition.
 
Duggan’s own Lamentations uses a single solo soprano voice and choir. There are three movements to his work, each consisting of a verse from the Lamentations, in the English translation found in the King James Bible. Like Tallis, Dugan precedes each verse with a Hebrew letter and when these words are sung he adds to the mix a lone trumpet. The trumpet part, much of which is at the lower end of the instrument’s register, adds a piquant touch to the texture. The trumpet is brought back at the very end as the line from Hosea, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’, is sung. Duggan’s music is haunting in tone and often compelling. In a committed performance the work of Susanna Fairbairn, singing the keening solo soprano part, is admirable.
 
The music on the programme takes the idea of the destruction of Jerusalem as a metaphor but none so directly and poignantly, I’d suggest, as does the piece by Rudolf Mauersberger. He was Director of the celebrated Dresden Kreuzchor from 1930 until his death in 1971. Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst (‘How lonely sits the city that was full of people!’) was written in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the city of Dresden through Allied bombing towards the end of World War II. Mauersberger carefully selected unconnected verses from the Lamentations and his selection is in itself very affecting. The music to which he set these words is homophonic and, despite the fact that much of the piece is quiet, it’s highly charged. Indeed, the effect is all the more powerful precisely because there is no raging in it; instead Mauersberger has composed a sorrowful, profoundly felt lament for his city. I’d not heard it before but I found it very moving.
 
Mauersberger’s piece concludes an extremely enterprising and consistently well sung programme. The singers of Sospiri blend well together and produce a set of polished and accomplished performances. The sound of the choir is bright and fresh. If I have a criticism - and it’s a very mild one - it would be that the ensemble can be somewhat soprano-dominated at times. The recording is clear and pleasing; I imagine the French church where the recording was made has a lovely, natural resonance. John Duggan’s notes are very good and I like the way that the texts and translations are woven into the notes rather than printed separately.
 
I see from the Sospiri website that the group is involved in a most interesting project. They have commissioned ten composers, including David Bednall, Gabriel Jackson, Cecilia McDowall, Matthew Martin and Francis Pott to compose settings of World War I texts. The plan is to record these new compositions during the coming summer and to release them on a CD in 2014 to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. That sounds like a most exciting project, especially since the roster of composers includes several of the leading British composers of choral music. I look forward to the appearance of that disc but in the meantime this present release advertises the credentials of Sospiri most impressively.
 
John Quinn

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