Upheld by stillness: Renaissance gems and their reflections – Volume 1: Byrd
Philippe de MONTE (1521-1603)
Super flumina Babylonis [4:46]
William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
Quomodo cantabimus [7:02]
Mass for Five Voices [23:08]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b.1968)
Kyrie after Byrd * [3:44]
Francis POTT (b.1957)
Laudate Dominum * [6:00]
Alexander L’ESTRANGE (b.1974)
Show me, deare Christ * [13:10]
Owain PARK (b.1993)
Upheld by stillness * [6:54]
Charlotte BRAY (b.1982)
Agnus Dei * [4:40]
Ave verum corpus [3:34]
Roderick WILLIAMS (b.1965)
Ave verum corpus re-imagined * [5:46]
* Work commissioned by ORA and world premiere recording
rec. St Alban’s, Holborn, London, 16-18 February 2015. DDD
Texts and English, French, German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMW906102 [78:44]
ORA is a relatively new vocal ensemble. It was formed by Suzi Digby in 2014 and uses some of the best consort singers currently active on the British musical scene. Here the group numbers 18 singers (6/4/4/4). However, ORA is rather more than just another expert vocal consort – there are plenty of those around. The group came into being though Suzi Digby’s conviction that “we are currently in a new glittering age of both choral writing and performing.” In this respect Ms Digby believes that the present day matches the Renaissance era. So her intention is to set contemporary composers the challenge to write new pieces inspired by masterpieces of Renaissance polyphony I believe that the goal is eventually to commission as many as 100 new pieces.
I’ve long believed that high quality contemporary vocal music can sit very well beside Renaissance music – just as modern music and Baroque music, especially that of Bach, can often strike sparks from one another. So Suzi Digby’s idea strikes a chord with me. This disc presents the first fruits of what is likely to be a lengthy and extensive project. If future instalments live up to this first one then this promises to be a most rewarding series.
Here, the contemporary music is inspired by William Byrd and chiefly by his Mass for Five Voices. The Mass is sung straight through, which is the right way to proceed. However, the pieces by all the contemporary composers other than Roderick Williams were responses to specific movements from the Mass and I found that it was rewarding not just to play through the disc but also sometimes to hear the relevant movement of the Mass followed by its associated modern composition.
My colleague, Brian Wilson, has already reviewed this disc and he has commented in detail on the performance of the Mass. I bow to his expertise in this field and commend his comments to others. I will simply say that I was seriously impressed by ORA’s account of the Mass which seemed to me to be beautifully calibrated and sung with great refinement and expertise.
The theme of the disc is the extent to which composers of today can be inspired by their Renaissance predecessors. However, it was most interesting to hear the two eight-part motets by de Monte and Byrd which open the programme. Both set words from Psalm 136 (‘By the waters of Babylon’) though de Monte sets verses 1-4 while Byrd takes for his text verses 4-7. The text speaks of the captivity of the Israelites and, as Sally Dunkley points out in her notes, this would have had a particular resonance for the recusant, Byrd. But the key interest – apart, of course, from the respective pieces per se – is that de Monte and Byrd may have met when the former visited England as part of the entourage of King Philip II of Spain. Thirty years later de Monte sent Byrd a copy of his Super flumina Babylonis and Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus was composed the following year. That, surely, is an excellent example of one Renaissance composer striking sparks off another one.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and how do today’s composers respond to Byrd? Roxanna Panufnik and Charlotte Bray have each set the text of the relevant section from the Ordinary of the Mass – respectively the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei. Panufnik recognisably uses Byrd’s music as her point of departure but her music is infinitely more chromatic. Her setting is intense and poignant. I like the way that her Kyrie II builds to a powerful climax; this is cut off abruptly after which the piece achieves a quiet yet unquiet close. Charlotte Bray takes as her model the way in which, in his Agnus Dei Byrd uses an increased number of voices for each ‘Agnus’. Holding back the full ensemble until the third ‘Agnus’ allows Bray to make that final section a really strong plea.
Francis Pott’s piece commemorates the late David Trendell, the former Director of the Chapel Choir of King’s College London. It’s a Latin setting of verses from Psalm 148. Though Byrd’s influence can be experienced in the use of imitative counterpoint I felt that the debt to Byrd was rather less apparent than was the case in the Panufnik and Bray compositions – but probably I need to dig deeper into the music. Pott’s piece is an exciting, lively work in which the part writing is complex and ever-moving. He varies the time signature between 4/4 and 7/8 so the rhythmic pulse is constantly changing. The ending is highly effective as the different choral lines create a teeming tumult of praise.
Alexander L’Estrange’s Show me, deare Christ is the reflection on Byrd’s Credo. As is usually the case in a Mass setting his piece is the most extensive in this connection. His approach is intriguing. He has started off by asking himself what might ‘Credo’ – belief – have meant for the recusant, Byrd in the turbulent, dangerous times of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His piece is a collage of texts, the sources for which include John Donne, two of the Jesuit martyrs of Elizabeth’s reign, and a passage from Byrd’s will. A recurring motif is the plainchant intonation “Credo in unum Deum”. L’Estrange has created a fascinating tapestry of words and ideas and he knits the ideas generated by the various authors into a convincing whole. He uses the voices most imaginatively, not least in terms of varying his choral textures.
Owain Park’s response to Byrd’s Sanctus is a setting of a poem by Kathleen Raine. Melodic fragments from Byrd are woven into Park’s music. The piece is slow-moving yet at the same time urgent and, at times, arrestingly dissonant. Suddenly, and without warning, it seems, the piece arrives at a richly harmonised and heavily Byrd-indebted close.
The programme closes with Byrd’s sublime Ave verum corpus followed by a musical response to it by baritone and composer, Roderick Williams. In his piece Williams selects and elaborates his favourite fragments from Byrd’s piece, which he has known and loved since he was a boy chorister. He uses three SATB choirs and the differentiation between the three groups, which is well-conveyed in this recording, is an important element in the success of the piece. The harmonies and the textures are most impressive.
All the contemporary pieces on this disc are intriguing and imaginative. I found it fascinating to hear how six different composers had had their creative imagination fired by the Tudor master. Both the modern pieces and the polyphonic items receive superb performances. The recordings are the work of engineer Mike Hatch and producer Nicholas Parker. I think they’ve recorded the performances most sympathetically. The notes are excellent: Sally Dunkley has written the essay on the polyphonic music while each contemporary composer has provided a short note on their own work.
This is a stimulating and rewarding launch of what promises to be an exciting project. I look forward keenly to further instalments from ORA and Suzi Digby
Previous review: Brian