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rec. St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London, 2016 SIGNUM CLASSICSSIGCD520 [53:10]
What a wonderful idea for a CD! As well as being wonderful singers, Gallicantus are fast establishing themselves as one of the smartest programmers in the classical music world, let alone in the world of Renaissance music in which they self-proclaimedly specialise. Their previous disc, Queen Mary’s Big Belly, was effectively a concept album, and this one is pretty similar in conception and execution.
This time, rather than taking a historical event as the pivot around which to structure their programme, Gallicantus take the whole classical and medieval idea of the sibyl as their motivating idea. The sibyls were soothsaying ladies, most famous from classical mythology, but they also appear in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as well as in Shakespeare.
Central to the programme is Orlandus Lassus’ twelve-part cycle Prophetiae Sibyllarum, in which the composer sets six-line Latin texts that summarise the sayings of the dozen classical sibyls, all of which speak in some way (albeit sometimes obscurely) of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the coming Kingdom of God. However, the wider idea for the disc arose from a project that Gallicantus undertook at Princeton University in 2015, where graduate students were introduced to the Lassus and then invited to compose their own responses to it. Gallicantus then presented the student works on campus alongside the Lassus, and Elliot Cole’s track that ends this disc was one of the eight student compositions. (Dmitri Tymoczko, whose work also appears, is a Princeton professor.)
The Lassus, therefore, forms the backbone of the disc, and it’s quite a centrepiece,
Lassus using each poem as a structure around which to weave music of spellbinding beauty. Like his Lagrime di San Pietro, also recorded by Gallicantus, I find them difficult to analyse individually, mostly because I found them so spellbindingly beautiful, and I found myself disappearing into the sensuousness of the textures. The six singers (two countertenors, two tenors, one baritone and one bass) sing with such impeccable blend and euphonious unanimity that it left me marvelling at the organic beauty of the sound. It’s altogether marvellous. Lassus’ cycle hasn’t been recorded often, and I confess that this is my first encounter with it, but I found Gallicantus so convincing that I had trouble imagining the music being done in any other way.
They are equally adept at evoking the chilly mysticism of Hildegard of Bingen, who was known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, thus justifying the inclusion of her two texts here, replete with their wandering melismas. Dmitri Tymoczko’s cycle of sibyl songs was part of the original Princeton project, so he makes a good companion to the Lassus here. He sets poems by Jeff Dolven which focus around statistics as “the modern analogue to prophecy.” Each is grounded in a place (Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia), and they speak of urban problems like homelessness, drug addiction and poverty. Musically, they’re a diverse set, with grinding dissonances set alongside seductive glissandi and chugging rhythms. I thought they worked very well, facing up appropriately to the issues they describe while at the same time holding their own as purely musical conceptions. Elliot Cole’s setting of Jesus’ words to Nathanael is also very effective. Disarming in its simplicity, it sets only the words of the title in gentle repetitions as the harmonies shift and one tone gets steadily higher. It’s a provocative but very effective way to end the disc.
The performances are superb, but what really sets the disc aside as special is the skill of its curation and the fact that the artists involved have had a jolly good idea and seen it through to a marvellous conclusion. More, please!