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Drop down, ye heavens: Advent Antiphons for Choir and Saxophone
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Drop down, ye heavens, from above [1:47]
Will TODD (b. 1970)
O Wisdom [4:36]
Pierre CERTON (1510-1572)
O Adonai [5:08]
Matthew KANER (b. 1986)
O Adonai [4:33]
Bonnie MIKSCH (b. 1970)
There is no rose [5:23]
Samuel RATHBONE (b. 1986)
O Root of Jesse [5:00]
Antoine de MORNABLE (fl. 1530-1553)
O Clavis David [4:57]
Francis POTT (b. 1957)
O Key of David [7:36]
Richard ALLAIN (b. 1965)
O Day-spring [3:44]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Praesepe iam fulget tuum [1:04]
Gareth WILSON (b. 1976)
O King of the Nations [5:19]
Stuart TURNBULL (b. 1975)
O Emmanuel [4:59]
Josquin des PREZ (c. 1450-1521)
O Virgo virginum [7:08]
Ralph ALLWOOD (b. 1950)
O Virgin of virgins [3:24]
Sam Corkin (saxophone)
Siglo de Oro/Patrick Allies
rec. 12-14 January 2016, St John the Evangelist church, Upper Norwood, London
Texts and translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34184 [64:45]

When this disc arrived and I saw that the contents included Advent Antiphons for choir and saxophone I thought for a moment that this might be a similar offering to the series of ‘Officium’ recordings made by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Gabarek in which an obbligato saxophone was grafted on to the singing of Renaissance polyphony. That idea always seems to me to be fundamentally misconceived and I never warmed to the results that I heard, though I know many other people enjoyed the discs very much. However, this project, which marks the recording debut of the vocal ensemble Siglo de Oro is a different kettle of fish. True, there are a few examples of Renaissance polyphony but they are presented unadorned – and are jolly well sung too. Where saxophonist Sam Corkin becomes involved is in the performance of several specially commissioned pieces.

The commissioned works are settings of the seven so-called ‘Great O Antiphons’. These antiphons are sung or said with the Magnificat during Evensong – or Evening Prayer in the Roman Catholic Church – during the days leading up to the Feast of Christmas, that is to say between 17 and 23 December. Actually, that statement is not quite true. Michael Emery has written a truly excellent booklet note in which he not only discusses the music but also the scriptural and liturgical origins of the antiphons. As he explains, in the medieval period it become customary to commence the sequence a day early – on 16 December – in order to accommodate an eighth antiphon in honour of the Virgin Mary on 23 December. A setting of that antiphon, O Virgo virginum has been included in this sequence of commissions.

Each of the new musical settings of the antiphons uses an English translation and each is scored for choir plus either soprano or alto saxophone. The results are highly individual. I was struck by Michael Emery’s reminder in the notes that traditionally the antiphons, when sung, are begun by a lone voice. As he says, this is akin to ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’. I wonder if any of the commissioned composers similarly envisioned the saxophone as a voice in the wilderness.

Before discussing the new antiphons I’ll comment briefly on the rest of the programme. Judith Weir’s setting of the Advent Prose opens the proceedings. Here she harmonises the traditional plainchant most sympathetically and in a very interesting way. It’s an excellent piece. The other modern piece which is not an antiphon setting is There is no rose by Bonnie Miksch. I infer from the notes that this piece is not perhaps entirely representative of her usual style. The piece “looks back to late-medieval textures, in homage to the words.” I think it’s a very effective piece of vocal writing and the music exerts a strong appeal to the listener.

Four composers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are represented and I’m glad to find two less familiar names feature. Little is known, it seems, of the life of Pierre Certon except that he spent much of his career as Master of the Choir at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. His O Adonai, sung in Latin, is an impressive piece and Siglo de Oro do it very well, their singing poised and the ensemble well-balanced. I was also pleased to encounter O Clavis David by Antoine de Mornable. This is a very fine piece of six-part polyphony.

Turning to the new antiphons, Will Todd’s O Wisdom is a very energetic composition. Much use is made of jazzy syncopation. I think this is a terrific piece in which the music mixes dance-like rhythms and a spirit of proclamation. Todd most effectively marries the old world of the words and the new world of his very twenty-first century music. The soprano saxophone is an extremely prominent extra voice in the Todd piece. In contrast Matthew Kaner uses the more mellow alto sax in his setting of O Adonai and he integrates the instrument more into the vocal texture. Samuel Rathbone’s O Root of Jesse is, as Michael Emery says, “thoughtful and reflective” and the soprano saxophone combines most effectively with the voices. Francis Pott uses the same type of sax in O Key of David but he uses the solo instrument much more dramatically, even to the extent that he asks the player, who begins and ends the piece, to start playing out of sight if possible and to retreat from vision at the end. I’m not sure that effect is attempted here. In this piece there’s a good deal of urgent and powerful writing, both for the singers and for the saxophonist. The music includes a number of free-flowing passages for the instrument alone.

Richard Allain divides the singers into two spatially differentiated choirs with the soprano sax player positioned between the two groups. In his O Day-spring the choir’s slow-moving gently glowing chords rise to and then recede from a central climax. The saxophone part seems inspired by plainchant. This is a very imaginative piece. Gareth Wilson’s O King of the Nations is a fine response to the text which is a plea for salvation from the coming King. So there’s considerable intensity in the music. I didn’t feel quite so enthusiastic about Stuart Turnbull’s O Emmanuel for reasons that I can’t quite articulate: I’m sure the fault is mine and that I need to become more familiar with it. Ralph Allwood has a different job to do in his setting. The other antiphons involve words that anticipate with increasing urgency the coming of the Messiah. However, O Virgin of virgins is addressed to the Saviour’s mother and marvels at the mystery of the Incarnation. Allwood responds to these sentiments with music that rises to an ecstatically joyful climax before ending, as it began, in a mood of subdued awe.

This is a most impressive disc. All the new pieces are imaginative and command the listener’s attention. The performances are splendid. Siglo de Oro is a fairly small, mixed-voice ensemble (4/2/2/4 with an extra alto and tenor voice in some of the pieces.) They seem to me to be equally accomplished in old and new music and the blend and sound of the group is superb. Sam Corkin uses the soprano and alto saxophones here and his playing is first class. The performances have been excellently and sympathetically recorded. Delphian customarily offer first rate sound and this is one of the very best recordings from the label that has come my way. Finally, as I’ve indicated, Michael Emery’s notes are outstanding.

This marvellous disc offers a stimulating new slant on the music of Advent. Don’t pass it by as “just another Christmas disc”. This is highly original and superbly performed. Siglo de Oro have made a most auspicious debut on disc; I look forward keenly to hearing them again.

John Quinn



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