Refuge from the Flames - The Savonarola Legacy
Gregorio ALLEGRI (c 1582-1652)
Miserere (arr. Ben Byram-Wigfield) [12:06]
Giovanni ANIMUCCIA (c.1520-1570)/Girolamo SAVONAROLA (1452-1498)
Iesų, sommo conforto [1:10]
Alma, che sė gentile [1:55]
Che fai qui, core? [1:17]
Luca BETTINI (c 1489-1527)
Ecce quam bonum [2:33]
Philippe VERDELOT (1480/85-c.1530/32)
Letamini in Domino [2:06]
William BYRD (c.1539/40-1623)
Infelix ego [12:14]
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b.1977)
Infelix ego [11:31]
Jean RICHAFORT (c.1480-c 1547)
O quam dulcis [4:24]
Claude Le JEUNE (c.1528/30-1600)
Tristitia obsedit me, magno [5:00]
Ecce quomodo morietur [1:47]
Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa (c.1510/15 – c.1555/56)
Tristitia obsedit me, amici [8:44]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
rec. 19-21 February 2015, St. Alban’s, Holborn, London
Latin and Italian texts and English, French, German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMW906103 [77:53]
Suzi Digby and her a cappella ensemble, ORA believe in presenting music of the Renaissance cheek by jowl with contemporary pieces, which is a fascinating and often highly effective juxtaposition in my experience. The first example of their work on disc was the very fine album, Upheld by stillness which I reviewed earlier this year. A similar format is followed this time and though numerically there are fewer modern works on the programme the fact that the pieces by MacMillan and Ešenvalds are so substantial – in every sense – affords ample compensation.
The programme is very intriguing and displays significant knowledge of the man around whom it is built. The subject is Girolamo Savonarola, the Franciscan friar who achieved prominence in late fifteenth century Florence on account of his strong opinions, trenchantly expressed. Among his targets were corruption, immorality and what he decreed to be excess in liturgical observances. His views and the popular fervour that he inspired brought him into conflict with Florence’s Medici rulers and with the papacy; perhaps unsurprisingly he was excommunicated and then executed for heresy.
While in prison awaiting execution he managed to write two important texts despite the attentions of the torturers. These were Infelix ego and Tristitia obsedit me. The former is a meditation on Psalm 50 and the latter reflects on Psalm 30. It’s somewhat ironic that Savonarola frequently inveighed against polyphonic music, which he believed distracted the faithful from devotions, yet the aforementioned texts were later set by such masters of polyphony as William Byrd.
Savonarola composed some musical settings of his own and three examples are included here. These take the form of laude, in which a medieval homophonic tune was set to a religious text. As you might expect, Savonarola’s pieces are fairly plain-spoken; they are direct in expression. Iesų, sommo conforto is a robust piece but the other two are rather more gentle and thoughtful. The piece by Luca Bettini is also a lauda. He was a Dominican who took inspiration from Savonarola. The inclusion of his Ecce quam bonum is relevant on two counts. Firstly, the words were used as a kind of watchword among the followers of Savonarola. Secondly, Bettini’s music was incorporated by Philippe Verdelot into the six-part setting of Letamini in Domino.
Given the links between the text of Infelix ego and Psalm 50 the inclusion of Allegri’s famous Miserere is appropriate. Allegri’s piece is very familiar – too familiar, some may think – but here Suzi Digby springs something of a surprise. She uses what I presume is a very recent edition by Ben Byram-Wigfield. He conflates three different versions or performing traditions in his edition, all of which relate to the choral verses between the plainchant passages. The first is Allegri’s original, unadorned music; the second is the ornamented style in which the Sistine Chapel choir came to perform the music; the third is the twentieth century version with which we’re all familiar, including the famous top Cs. The results are very interesting to hear and Wigfield’s edition mitigates what can be the repetitious nature of this long piece.
Savonarola’s text Infelix ego is heard in Byrd’s masterly and strongly-felt setting. This is one of the deepest and finest pieces of Tudor polyphony. Byrd was almost certainly a Catholic recusant – or at least sympathetic to the ‘old ways’ – and the threat of persecution must have weighed heavily on him in the turbulent years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Savonarola’s words drew such a strong response from him. Perhaps even the ascetic author of the words might have unbent a little had he been able to hear Byrd’s eloquent polyphonic setting.
ORA sing two settings of Savonarola’s other meditation from the condemned cell, Tristitia obsedit me. Both are fine compositions. The one by Clemens is particularly noteworthy, not just on account of the music but also because he includes some lines from Infelix ego and, right at the end, the opening sentence of Psalm 50.
Of the two contemporary works the setting by James MacMillan of the Miserere is one I’ve heard before. It was commissioned by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen and they, as well as other expert choirs, have recorded it. MacMillan is well known for his admiration for sacred polyphony, not least that of his fellow Scot, Robert Carver (c.1485-c.1570). In his Miserere he pays suitable homage to Allegri, not least in the use of plainchant. On several occasions the text is chanted, as it is in Allegri’s setting, and what I think is remarkable about MacMillan’s use of this device is that the chant emerges seamlessly from the original music that precedes it and then flows back into MacMillan’s music. It’s a marvellous composition in which influences from liturgical music of the past have been fully and very naturally assimilated, enabling MacMillan to build on and renew the tradition within which he’s writing. The beautiful, slow-moving music to which he sets the closing lines, beginning at ‘Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiatae’ (Thou shalt be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness) conveys a palpable sense of trust.
Ēriks Eenvalds’ Infelix ego was completely new to me: it was commissioned by ORA and this is its first recording. It may seem daring to place the piece right next to Byrd’s great setting but that’s absolutely the right place for it, not least because melodic fragments from the Byrd can be heard in Ešenvalds’ work, especially at the very start. However, Ešenvalds uses Byrd as an inspiration for a decidedly twenty-first century piece, using very contemporary harmonies and textures. His piece is mainly sung in English though there are one or two digressions into the Latin original. It’s a marvellous, highly imaginative setting of Savonarola’s words and it seems to me to be as deeply felt as was Byrd’s response to the same text. ORA’s commission has resulted in a significant addition to the a cappella repertoire.
This is a programme that is as imaginative as it is varied. It has been thoughtfully conceived and the music is stimulating at every turn. As on their previous release, Suzi Digby and ORA prove themselves to be equally accomplished in music of the ‘Golden Age’ and in music of our own time. From start to finish the singing is superb and Digby and her ensemble lead the listener’s ear through the repertoire most persuasively.
The recording, produced by Nicholas Parker and engineered by Mike Hatch is excellent, showing off both the music and the performers in an ideal fashion. Ben Byram-Wigfield’s notes, on which I have drawn for background information in this review, are excellent.
The disc is a worthy follow-up to ORA’s debut recording and I await their next exploration of Renaissance and contemporary music with great interest.