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Desires: A Song of Songs Collection
ORA Singers/Suzi Digby
rec. 2016, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Texts and translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905316 [71:20]

I’ve heard most of the previous releases by Suzi Digby and the ORA Singers. I’ve enjoyed and admired them, relishing not only the superb singing but also the perceptive mix of renaissance polyphony and contemporary music in their programmes (review ~ review ~ review~ review). This new CD offers another mix of music across the centuries.

This time the theme of the programme is settings of words from the Song of Songs. The musical menu includes four pieces of contemporary music, two of which – the pieces by Jonathan Dove and John Barber – have been commissioned for this album and here, obviously, receive their first recordings. Jonathan Dove’s Vadam et circuibo civitatem (I will arise and go about the city) is a direct response to the piece by Victoria which sets the same text. Indeed, as Dove explains, for much of the piece he “dwells” on the first eight bars of Victoria’s setting. The result seems almost hypnotic to me but gradually the writing acquires greater urgency until the climax is attained at ‘Adiuro vos, filiae Hierusalem’ (I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem), after which the piece subsides to a quiet conclusion. Dove’s piece seems to me to be a fine musical homage and it’s absolutely ideal to hear it immediately after an equally marvellous performance of the Victoria.

John Barber’s piece Sicut lilium (As the lily) is a lovely piece of writing. He says in a note that he has focused on the text’s image of the lily among thorns which suggests to him that one can’t have faith without doubt, or love without the fear of losing it. I liked Barber’s piece very much. It’s an admirable foil for the setting of the same text by Antoine Brumel with which the programme opened. Barber describes the Brumel as “a miniature gem of a piece” and I wouldn’t dissent from that; it’s an absolutely lovely composition and it benefits here from a really poised performance by the ORA Singers. Whilst I liked hearing the Dove and Victoria in close proximity, I was equally pleased by the decision to bookend the programme with the Brumel and Barber pieces, though such is the convenience of CD that it’s perfectly possible to hear them also one after the other.

Gabriel Jackson’s I am the Rose of Sharon is heard immediately after Ego flos campi by Clemens non Papa. I’m not aware that Jackson wrote his piece in response to Clemens but the programme planning seems highly imaginative and the juxtaposition works very well. The Clemens piece is full of fine, intertwining polyphony. Jackson’s writing includes lots of individual florid lines which often come together before going their separate ways. His music is gently ecstatic and, as so often with this composer, the vocal textures are highly individual and rich. I liked just as much the juxtaposition of Jackson’s piece with Hortus conclusus by the Spaniard, Rodrigo de Ceballos. Here is rich Iberian polyphony and it’s rewarding to hear the contrast between the ordered music of de Ceballos and Jackson’s much freer way with a text.

Gombert’s Quam pulchra es is surprisingly austere for a piece that sets lines from the Song of Songs. Probably the fact that it’s sung by tenors and basses serves to accentuate the sense of austerity. It’s welcome, therefore, to follow the Gombert with Victoria’s piece which is much lighter in texture; the music is quite aristocratic.

Robert White’s Tota pulchra es follows on from the plainchant setting of the same text – indeed, the White follows attacca. White’s music is beautifully proportioned and has a fine melodic base. Throughout the piece the parts interweave most skilfully and the superb singing of the ORA Singers means that every line is ideally balanced and differentiated, yet the blend is perfect. The nature of plainchant is such that it sounds timeless – as is the case here – yet White’s music is at least as timeless.

You will have gathered from the above that not only is the selection of the programme discriminating but also that the ordering of the music has been thoughtfully done. As I’ve found before with Suzi Digby’s discs, the programme makes a stimulating sequence. The quality of the ORA Singers’ delivery of the music is superb from start to finish and they’ve been given an ideally engineered recording by Mike Hatch.

I have only one complaint about this otherwise excellent issue. The booklet contains what is, I’m sure, an excellent essay about the Song of Songs by Rev. Tim Harling, Chaplain of Queen’s College, Cambridge. However, I had to give up my attempts to read this because whoever designed the booklet decided that everything should be printed in a very small, lightly coloured font. As a result, unless you have twenty-twenty vision, which I don’t, you’ll find the text all-but illegible. It’s equally hard work to follow the text and translations. A big black mark for presentation, I’m afraid.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson
Antoine BRUMEL (c.1460-1512/13) Sicut lilium inter spinas [2:21]
Jacob CLEMENS non Papa (c.1510/15-c.1555/56) Ego flos campi [4:36]
Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962) I am the Rose of Sharon (2001) [6:00]
Rodrigo de CEBALLOS (c.1525/30-c.1581) Hortus conclusus [5:10]
Plainchant: Tota pulchra es [2:03]
Robert WHITE (c.1538-1574) Tota pulchra es [6:49]
Francis GRIER (b.1955) Dilectus meus mihi (1987) [7:22]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-c.1560) Quam pulchra es [5:18]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Vadam et circuibo civitatem [8:18]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) Vadam et circuibo civitatem (2017) [8:53]
Sebastián de VIVANCO (c.1551-1622) Veni, dilecte mi [4:41]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/26-1594) Duo ubera tua [3:42]
Juan ESQUIVEL (c.1560-c.1624) Surge propera amica mea [3:13]
John BARBER (b.1980) Sicut lilium (2017) [2:48]

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