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The Mystery of Christmas
ORA Singers/Suzi Digby
rec. 2017, St Augustin’s Church, Kilburn, London
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905305 [76:37]

I’ve been looking forward to this disc a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed when it came. ORA’s previous three discs have impressed me enormously, and not just because of the way they combine beautiful singing with rock-solid technical security. The real selling point for me is the way Suzi Digby curates for her chorus a programme that combines music ancient and modern in a way that gets them to interact with one another and cast one another in exciting new lights. They did that brilliantly for Byrd in Upheld by Stillness, for Tallis in Many are the Wonders and for the legacy of Savonarola in Refuge from the Flames. Now they do the same, triumphantly, for the message of Christmas.

They’ve now changed the name on the disc to “ORA Singers” (rather than just ORA) presumably for the sake of clarity, and it’s clarity that they bring to the collection of Medieval and Renaissance numbers on this disc. Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium sounds wonderful in the acoustic of St Augustin’s Church, the repetitions of “jacentem in praesepio” taking an architectural role in their beauty. The awesome scale of Tallis’ Videte miraculum sounds even finer, the musical lines seeming to float in mid-air as they coalesce into something of beauteous grandeur. The various medieval settings sound great, too. They have an intimacy to them, both in their directness and the clean sound of solo voices that the choir opt for, making them come alive afresh, regardless of whether you knew them before.

Alongside them, the contemporary numbers are just as good. Adrian Peacock’s Venite, Gaudete! combines prayerfulness with a slight mania, and Roderick Williams’ number is one of the finest things on the disc. O Adonai, Et Dux Domus Israel combines a pleading, almost keening soprano line of entreaty with a slower, rocking movement in the men that I found utterly spellbinding and completely convincing. There is also a key, quasi-operatic solo for a baritone, which we are lucky to have taken here by Williams himself, an endorsement of the composer’s confidence in Suzi Digby and her choir. Judith Weir’s setting of the Advent Prose is simple but has beautifully effective harmonies, and John Rutter contributes a new carol, one dedicated to the performers, hence justifying the name. It’s a reflective, introverted setting of A babe is born, the medieval words made famous by William Mathias, with lovely harmonies and a welcoming texture (and a tune that reminded me of Bob Chilcott’s Shepherds’ Carol). It’s leavened by a marimba, whose questioning tinkles I found a little odd and not entirely welcome, but at least it gives the piece a flavour you wouldn't normally expect from Rutter, which is quite fun. Thomas Hyde’s Sweet was the Song is very persuasive, and Fredrik Sixten gives us a voluptuously immersive setting of Silent Night, against which Mary’s personal lullaby rings out as a soprano solo. Steven Sametz’s setting of Gaudete buzzes with energy, bursting out of the speakers with dazzling power.

But the disc’s USP remains the way that the old and the new numbers interact with one another. Many of the new carols are an explicit response to the older ones, and I love the sense of answering back that this introduces. It works really well in Richard Allain’s setting of the Coventry Carol. He uses the well-known setting in a pretty unadulterated form, but sets it against a pendulum-like musical line that introduces a sense of fear, almost panic to the carol, something entirely appropriate when you consider its theme of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s made all the more effective by the fact that it comes straight after the beautifully sung original.

You get a similar effect in James MacMillan’s setting of Nova! Nova! Ave Fit Ex Eva: coming straight after the medieval version, we get two very different (but equally effective) musical translations of joy separated by several centuries. Listening blind, the clean, wandering opening Jamie Hall’s As I Lay Upon a Night made me think I was listening to another medieval setting, but it takes off into a beautiful contemporary setting of the medieval text, full of beguiling harmonies and diaphanous textures. There is a similar atmosphere to Ben Rowarth’s setting of There Is No Rose, whose medieval forebear here has a quality of the dance to it. That’s also an incredibly persuasive component of Cecilia McDowall’s Now May We Singen, which has an infectious sense of unbridled joy.

The biggest sense of answering back, however, comes in the two settings of O Magnum Mysterium: Byrd’s Renaissance setting opens the disc, and Morten Lauridsen’s now famous contemporary setting closes the loop at the end. It’s one of the most successful contemporary carols, so all I will say is that this luminescent performance is one of the finest I’ve heard, unfolding in an unhurried sense of mystery with every line totally clean but also blended impeccably into its colleagues.

So this disc is every bit as special as ORA’s previous ones, and the only thing to regret is that we have to wait so long between their releases. They’re not just another chorus, albeit a brilliant one: they have something to say and they say it with passion, beauty and intelligence. Warmly recommended, and not only for the very discerning.

Simon Thompson

William Byrd: O Magnum Mysterium [2:43]
Adrian Peacock: Venite, Gaudete! [2:23]
Roderick Williams: O Adonai, Et Dux Domus Israel [7:08]
Judith Weir: Drop Down, Ye Heavens, from Above [1:40]
Thomas Tallis: Videte Miraculum [9:55]
Anon. (medieval): Coventry Carol [2:42]
Anon. (arr. Richard Allain) Coventry Carol [3:52]
Anon (medieval) Nova, Nova [1:57]
James MacMillan: Nova! Nova! Ave Fit Ex Eva [5:39]
John Rutter: Suzi's Carol [5:00]
Jamie W. Hall: As I Lay Upon a Night [3:13]
Anon. (medieval) There Is No Rose [3:22]
Ben Rowarth: There Is No Rose [4:41]
Thomas Hyde: Sweet Was the Song [2:02]
Anon. (medieval): Now May We Singen [4:25]
Cecilia McDowall: Now May We Singen [3:29]
Fredrik Sixten: Mary's Lullaby (Silent Night) [4:01]
Steven Sametz: Gaudete [4:01]
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium [6:00]


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