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Many Are The Wonders
rec. 2016, All Hallow’s Church, Gospel Oak, London
Texts & translations included HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905284 [70:25]
I’ve followed the previous releases by Suzi Digby and ORA with considerable interest (review ~ review). Not only have the performance standards been consistently high but also, I have found their juxtaposition of Renaissance polyphony and new music very stimulating. In this latest release, they place the focus on Thomas Tallis. The music of the Tudor master is set beside pieces by eight contemporary composers; all but two of the modern pieces, those by Steven Stucky and Bob Chilcott were commissioned by ORA and here receive their first recordings. The piece by the American, Steven Stucky is one of his Three New Motets ‘In Memoriam Thomas Tallis’ (2005). By a poignant coincidence Stucky died on the day before these recording sessions took place and so his piece, and the Tallis piece which inspired it, were included in the programme as a tribute.
The programme is interspersed with the Psalm Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter. These include the Third Tune which Vaughan Williams so memorably used in his ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. Here it’s sung in a brisk, forthright way. In fact, Suzi Digby ensures that all of these tunes are performed in different fashions, according to the words which they accompany. As an appendix John Milsom’s edition of the Third Tune here receives its first recording. Milsom takes into account some subtle differences in the source material. The reason this bonus track is so much longer than the ‘standard’ version heard on track 7 is that the Milsom version is sung to the entire text of Psalm 2.
The Parker tunes are important but for my taste the polyphonic works are infinitely more interesting and the way in which various contemporary composers have responded to them is highly intriguing. The lovely If ye love me is here sung by male voices (TTBB). These lower voices give the music a darker hue than we experience when the piece is sung by SATB forces; the effect is very pleasing. I’m very taken with the ‘reflection’ on If ye love me by the American composer Frank Ferko. It seems to me that Ferko has respected the spirit of the Tallis original but has very successfully refracted the sixteenth-century music through the prism of 21st century music.
The exuberant Pentecost responsory, Loquebantur variis linguis is splendidly sung and the piece prompts a fascinating response from Ken Burton. Burton is especially celebrated for his work over many years with the London Adventist Chorale and the Croydon SDA Gospel Choir as well as for his compositions and arrangements. It was an enterprising choice by ORA to turn to a Gospel musician to put a fresh slant on Tallis but, my goodness, it has paid off. Unlike most of his colleagues represented here Burton chose not to set the same words that Tallis did. Instead, he has set three verses from different Psalms. Burton takes his cue from the fact that the Tallis piece is a Pentecost responsory; he also finds Gospel/blues echoes in some of the Tudor composer’s rhythms and false relations. Loosely, Burton adopts a structure similar to a responsory; so, at the start we hear not a plainchant incipit but, rather, s high-lying, fervent tenor solo. At first the music is slow-moving with some intriguingly spicy harmonies but after a second tenor solo the music is much quicker. It’s all highly imaginative and though I wouldn’t have expected Tallis and Gospel music to ‘gel’ Burton proves me wrong in fine style.
Harry Escott’s responds to what he calls the “masterclass in simplicity” that is O nata lux in a rather more traditional fashion but he’s no less imaginative. In his O light of Light Escott says he has “borrowed a handful of musical clippings and some of my favourite harmonies” from Tallis’s little gem of a setting. Escott’s piece includes some intense harmonic ‘scrunches’ and is, I think, very successful.
I’ve long admired the music of Alec Roth and his Night prayer doesn’t disappoint. It’s a response to the Tallis hymn for Compline, Te lucis ante terminum and the plainchant from Tallis’s setting pervades Roth’s piece in a wholly beneficial fashion. Bob Chilcott uses the Tallis melody for the Parker Eighth Tune and turns it into an ingenious canon for double choir. Kerry Andrew sets Psalm 150 in the English of the day. His is a most interesting take on the psalm, though I’m not sure how firmly it relates to Tallis. For the most part Andrews’ music is extrovert so it comes as something of a surprise when the piece ends quietly.
At the heart of the programme, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies Videte miraculum, the responsory for the Feast of the Purification, which Tallis set in such a wondrous fashion. The Tallis receives a very fine performance indeed, though I retain my loyalty to Stile Antico’s even more spacious performance (review). Suzi Digby and her expert singers ensure that all the vocal parts are superbly balanced so that Tallis’s exquisite polyphony makes its effect. Richard Allain says that he found the prospect of complementing this masterpiece “daunting”. Yes, it is a huge challenge, but I think Allain has succeeded triumphantly. His setting contains melodic echoes of the Tallis and like his Tudor predecessor Allain uses a cantus firmus; this provides a grounding for gorgeous part-writing. The music unfolds in spacious sequences and Allain follows the responsory structure by including plainchant sections. He has written a marvellous piece which is highly complementary to the Tallis – you can almost sense Tallis hovering at his shoulder. It’s a very fine achievement which ORA magnify by giving a fabulous performance.
This album is every bit as stimulating and successful as ORA’s two previous releases. Once again, the combination of polyphonic music and music of our own time works really well, not least because the composers who have been commissioned have been discerningly chosen. The singing of ORA is top-notch throughout: up to 20 singers are used (8/4/4/4) but in quite a few pieces smaller consorts of voices are employed. They have been most sympathetically recorded by Mike Hatch working with producer Tim Hadley. The documentation is excellent, including notes from all the commissioned composers and a very fine essay about Tallis from John Milsom.
I await ORA’s next album with no little impatience.
Track Listing Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585) Man blest no doubt (First Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [1:01]
Let God arise (Second Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [0:54]
O sacrum convivium [3:24] Steven STUCKY(1949-2016) O sacrum convivium [3:03] Thomas TALLIS If ye love me [1:56] Frank FERKO(b. 1950) Reflection on Thomas Tallis’ If ye love me [2:36] Thomas TALLIS Why fum’th in sight (Third Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [0:58]
O come in one to praise the Lord (Fourth Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [1:09]
Videte miraculum [9:52] Richard ALLAIN(b. 1965) Videte miraculum [10:35] Thomas TALLIS Loquebantur variis linguis [4:00] Ken BURTON(b. 1970) Many are the wonders [4:43] Thomas TALLIS E’en like the hunted hind (Fifth Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter)[1:00]
Expend, O Lord, my plaint (Sixth Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [1:16]
O nata lux [1:56] Harry ESCOTT(b. 1976) O light of Life [2:29] Thomas TALLIS Te lucis ante terminum [2:02] Alec ROTH(b 1948) Night prayer [3:02] Thomas TALLIS Why brags’t in malice high (Seventh Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [0:46]]
God grant with grace (Eighth Tune for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) [1:12] Kerry ANDREW (b 1978) Archbishop Parker’s psalme 150 [4:19] Thomas TALLIS Come Holy Ghost (Archbishop Parker’s Hymn Tune - Ordinal) [0:37] Bob CHILCOTT (b 1955) Tallis Canon [2:32]
[Appendix] Thomas TALLIS Why fum’th in sight (ed. John MILSOM) [4:51]