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Many Are The Wonders
rec. February 2016, All Hallow’s Church, Gospel Oak, London HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905284 [70:25]
They haven’t been around for long, but ORA have carved out for themselves a very particular niche in British choral life, using Renaissance music as a jumping-off point to inspire contemporary composers to write responses to it. Their most recent disc, using the life and music of Savonarola as inspiration, really impressed me, and this new one did so too. It follows in the footsteps of their first disc (which I haven’t heard) which took the music of Byrd as a starting point for an exploration from contemporary composers. This time, however, it is Tallis, Byrd’s great contemporary, that provides the stimulus and origin.
Tallis’ tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter form the backbone of the disc, and all of them are sung with admirable directness and crisply precise diction that would have pleased the Reformation sentiments of Parker himself. That and the other motets give us an object lesson in how Renaissance polyphony should be done. If Ye Love Me is given in the arrangement for male voices only, and has a mahogany brown sound that I found bewitching. They adopt a fairly moderate tempo for Videte miraculum and, if I prefer the more mysterious feel that is evoked by Stile Antico’s slower tempo, then it still sounds spiritually introverted and very contemplative. Loquebantur variis linguis bustles a little bit, but O nata lux is a model of sensitive pacing, utter togetherness and spiritual tone. The low voices for Te lucis ante terminum lend the piece a suitably nocturnal air, and as a bonus we also get the full setting of Parker’s second Psalm in an edition that, we are told, is gaining its first recording. It sounds one-to-a-part, and that approach brings gains of intimacy and clarity.
So far so good, but it’s with the contemporary pieces that things get really interesting. The dialogue between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries works very well, and I really liked the fact that the two sorts of music are interspersed rather than presented as two separate entities. That turns the programme into a proper exploration where the listener is encouraged to see parallels or, as often as not, the ways in which the composer has chosen to move away from Tallis’ stimulus material.
Unlike the other 21st century tracks on the disc, Steven Stucky’s O Sacrum Convivium was not commissioned but was included as a tribute to Stucky, who died during the recording process. It marries a long-breathed top line against an edgy, restless lower line, and the marriage (or should that be contrast?) works very well. Frank Ferko’s Reflection on If Ye Love Me moves slowly and very beautifully through a range of different harmonics which just about allow you to trace the ancestry of Tallis’ original in Ferko’s music. Richard Allain’s Videte miraculum takes the falling motif of Tallis’ opening and turns it into a spellbinding series of suspensions spread over the whole breadth of the choral texture, while the sopranos rhapsodise ethereally over the top.
Ken Burton’s Many are the wonders has the air of a revivalist meeting to its opening before it settles down to something more still and contemplative, but it retains an air of sunlit joy throughout. Harry Escott’s O Light of Light covers an impressive diversity of ground in a small space of time, and Alec Roth’s Night Prayer sets comforting slow harmonies against an undulating choral line that threatens to undo it. Kerry Andrew’s setting of Psalm 150 (from Archbishop Parker’s Psalmody) is a wonderfully fun setting, full of joy, but also a sense of swing and pictorial delight in the way it plays around with the words and the structure. Bob Chilcott provides a lovely setting of “God grant with grace” as what he calls the Tallis Canon. It displays all of Chilcott’s trademark soft harmonies, and to describe it as easy on the ear is to praise it rather than criticise.
The quality of the singing is first rate throughout, impeccably blended and beautifully tuned, giving a rich sense of unity to the whole endeavour. The recorded sound is also appropriately rich, full of life, but with the space to breathe in the acoustic, also captured brilliantly by the HM engineers. The Gospel Oak church fits it like a glove.
Suzi Digby is blazing a trail with ORA, building a bridge between older, well established music and contemporary composers, and she is doing it with exceptional intelligence. Many are the wonders, indeed.
1 TALLIS: Archbishop Parker Hymn Tunes: Man Blest No Doubt
2 Let God Arise
3 TALLIS: O Sacrum Convivum
4 Steven STUCKY: O Sacrum Convivium
5 TALLIS: If Ye Love Me
6 Frank FERKO: Reflection on Thomas Tallis’ If Ye Love Me
7 TALLIS: Why fum’th in sight
8 TALLIS: O come in one
9 TALLIS: Videte Miraculum
10 Richard ALLAIN: Videte Miraculum
11 TALLIS: Loquebantur
12 Ken BURTON: Many are the wonders
13 TALLIS: E’en like the hunted hind
14 Expend O Lord
15 O nata lux
16 Harry ESCOTT: O Light of Life
17 TALLIS: Te Lucis ante terminum
18 Alec ROTH: Night Prayer
19 TALLIS: Why brags’t in malice high
20 God grant with grace
21 Kerry ANDREW: Archbishop Parker’s Psalm 150
22 TALLIS: Come Holy Ghost
23 Bob CHILCOTT: Tallis Canon
24 [Appendix] Thomas TALLIS: Why fum’th in sight