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Spem in alium
ORA Singers/Suzi Digby
rec. 2019, All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London
Latin texts and English & French translations included
Includes DVD - ‘Spem in alium: 450 years’
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902669.70 [CD: 70:24 + DVD: 35 mins]

Over the last few years, I’ve followed the series of recordings by Suzi Digby and the ORA Singers with great interest. I’ve admired greatly the standard of musicianship and also the enterprise of the programme planning. Perhaps the key feature of the programming has been the ensemble’s desire to complement pieces of Renaissance polyphony with choral music of our own time, much of it specially commissioned: the results have been invariably stimulating.

This latest programme has been curated by John Milsom, who has also written the excellent notes. At either end of the programme, like massive, imposing pillars, stand motets for 40 voices, one old and one very new. The project has been conceived, Suzi Digby tells us, to celebrate the fact that the 450th anniversary of the composition of Tallis’s Spem in alium occurs “around 2020”. Before I comment on the two big pieces, though, I want to consider the rest of the programme because it’s important that the smaller-scale pieces should not be overlooked. Normally, ORA Singers is an ensemble of 18 singers, I believe, but for all the pieces except the two forty-part works, a maximum of eight singers are involved.

John Milsom’s programme design centres round the great palace of Nonsuch. The palace, which was located near Cheam, Surrey, was constructed at some speed in the 1540s to serve as an opulent hunting lodge for King Henry VIII. Nonsuch lay within striking distance of London, so it would have been quite convenient for the royal court. It was incomplete, though, when Henry died in 1547 and his daughter, Queen Mary I sold it in 1556 to Henry FitzAlan, earl of Arundel, who completed the building work in 1585. The place reverted to the crown five years later and, after something of a chequered history of subsequent ownership, it was demolished in the early 1680s. King Henry intended Nonsuch to show off not just his wealth and power but also his cultivated tastes. As such, John Milsom relates, it became something of a cultural magnet and it retained that status under the ownership of the earl of Arundel, attracting many artists and musicians. Indeed, the earl of Arundel, along with the duke of Norfolk, commissioned Thomas Tallis to composer Spem in Alium. Several of the other composers whose works feature on this programme had associations with Nonsuch.

Included in that number are two composers of probably Flemish origin whose names and music were previously unknown to me. Derrick Gerarde is thought to be Flemish, John Milsom tells us, and it is believed he studied in the circle of Nicolas Gombert. He appears to have made most of his career in England, including a spell in the service of the earl of Arundel. Philip van Wilder, was Flemish but came to England to ply his trade as a lutenist. His success in that endeavour can be gauged by the fact that he taught the instrument to all three of Henry VIII’s children. He also directed a small select consort of voices at court. On this disc Gerarde’s O Souverain Pasteur is an ideal choice to follow the mighty Spem in alium. It’s a five-part setting (SAABB), in French, of a grace before meals. The music is well-wrought and deliberately modest in scale; it’s also very fluent. I found it an excellent foil to the vast polyphonic edifice that precedes it on this programme.

The other piece by Gerarde is rather different. Tu es potentia is scored for SSATB and John Milsom detects the influence of Tudor composers in the music. I liked very much the way the various polyphonic lines flow as they interweave and become increasingly fervent. Philip van Wilder’s Latin setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Pater Noster is for high voices only (SAATT); this scoring gives the music a pleasing lightness of texture. His Vidi civitatem is a very different kettle of fish. This is a six-part piece (SATTBB), which John Milsom rightly describes as “vast and imposing”. I was very impressed indeed by this piece; the music unfolds spaciously and very expressively. Apparently, authorship has also been attributed to Gombert, but Milsom thinks the fact that the only surviving manuscript sources are found in British collections suggests it was written for a Tudor patron. Whoever wrote this piece, it’s a very fine achievement.

Music by Alfonso Ferrabosco I is also included. Though Ferrabosco was Italian, John Milsom makes a good evidential case to support the idea that his music was composed for an English audience. I like very much the impeccably voiced performance of In Monte Oliveti. This solemn motet for SATTBB contains music that is ordered but intense. By contrast, Decantabat populus Israel (SSATTB) is fast, joyful and light-footed. It receives a performance that’s full of vitality which I really enjoyed.

Byrd and Tallis are represented as of right. The Byrd pieces are both from the 1591 Cantiones sacrae. In this ORA performance of Domine, salva nos (AATTBB) the blend of the lines is expertly judged, with just the right degree of prominence accorded to the Alto I part. In Fac cum servo tuo the balance between the parts – this time SATTB – is again impeccable. Tallis’s In ieiunio et fletu is described by John Milsom as the composer’s “weirdest work”. The scoring uses low voices only (ATTBB) and the music is suitably austere, which fits the penitential text like a glove. It’s dark-toned, almost confessional music. In this performance the alto voice has just the right degree of edge while the two bass voices give the ensemble a firm foundation. The five-part Derelinquit impius receives a wonderfully eloquent performance; one feels that the polyphony is completely at the service of expression.

Standing at either end of this programme are the forty-part motets. Spem in alium is very familiar and is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of Tudor polyphony. Suzi Digby directs a performance that is simply magnificent. She had at her disposal a group of expert singers who were positioned in a circle with the conductor at the apex. The combined skills of the musician and the engineers means that, even in “vanilla” stereo the listener gets a very clear sense of the eight separate choirs – goodness knows what the performance would sound like in surround sound! There’s a truly thrilling sound at the points where the full ensemble sings flat-out, but just as impressive are the more subdued passages, which are delivered with admirable subtlety.

It can’t be an easy task to compose a homage to Spem but few composers are better equipped than Sir James MacMillan who has shown a deep understanding of and respect for the music of the Renaissance – notably that of Robert Carver – in some of his previous scores. In the booklet he comments that he “used the Tallis original as an inspiration in the way I utilised the eight five-voiced choirs, and how I moved the music from choir to choir, gradually building the sound up from one to forty voices.” He doesn’t quote from Spem in his score but he has used the structure of Tallis’s masterpiece as an inspiration. For his text, MacMillan used the text ‘Vidi aquam’ from the prophecy of Ezekiel.

I think MacMillan’s piece begins in the same key as Spem and the music seems to inhabit the same milieu at first. One difference between the respective texts is that Vidi aquam includes the word ‘alleluia’ on three occasions. Taking his cue from the three immense tutti moments in Spem, MacMillan adopts a similar structure, using three ‘alleluias’. He seizes the opportunity to make his setting of that word into an ecstatic outburst of joy and praise each time ‘alleluia’ occurs. Indeed, so teeming and jubilant is the music at these points that it sounds almost as one imagines a group of people – such as the Apostles? – speaking in tongues might sound. Am I being fanciful here, or did MacMillan have such a thought, I wonder? As I say, Vidi aquam initially seems quite close in musical spirit to Spem but after the first clamorous ‘alleluia’ [2:35] MacMillan starts to add more modern twists to the music, while still remaining within more than touching distance of Tallis. Gradually, though, the music moves into more contemporary territory. The second ‘alleluia’ is even more luminous and exited than the first; here, the music includes some truly stratospheric writing for some of the sopranos. By now the music has moved in directions that Tallis, operating within different compositional rules and techniques, could never have imagined. Yet, even so I don’t believe that MacMillan ever loses touch with the root that is Spem, even when his harmonies and textures are at their most exploratory. One gesture that I love is a brief passage [7:14] where what I can only describe as a musical waterfall descends downwards through the upper vocal parts. The last outburst of ‘alleluia’ is especially fervent and the listener feels certain that the concluding tonality has been reached, but just before the end MacMillan throws in a wonderful, unexpected harmonic sidestep before bringing Vidi aquam to a resolute conclusion.

As a homage to the great Tudor masterpiece, I’d say that Vidi aquam is an unqualified success. More than that, though, I’d say the work is a masterpiece in its own right. It is a wonderful response to the chosen text. In addition, it challenges both performers and listeners, yet it never leaves the listener behind because it exercises a huge sensory appeal. As so often with this composer, the music communicates vividly. The first time I played the piece I immediately replayed it. Since then, I’ve listened to it several more times and each time it has enthralled me. The compositional skill required to knit together so many independent vocal parts must be immense. The piece is thrilling and so is the performance. MacMillan’s writing must make significant demands on the conductor and singers but all challenges appear to have been met and surmounted. Suzi Digby relates, during her conversation with the composer on the DVD, that after the recording had been made, she sent copies to one or two carefully selected musicians. One of them was John Rutter, whose reaction to Vidi aquam was that he sensed “a new-born free spirit rising from the body of Tallis’s Spem

This generous Harmonia Mundi package includes not only the CD but also a DVD. This has four elements. Two of the chapters are devoted to one of the recording sessions for each of the forty-part works. It’s fascinating to see the performers as well as to hear them. There’s also an introductory chapter in which Suzi Digby talks about the project to record these two works. The concluding chapter is an illuminating conversation between Suzi Digby and Sir James about Vidi aquam. I’d recommend watching the DVD first before delving into the full music programme on CD. However, the DVD is one that will repay watching more than once.

The camera work and sound on the DVD is excellent. As for the CD, producer Nick Parker and engineer Mike Hatch have made a fantastic job of the recording. All the smaller pieces benefit from clarity and intimacy of sound. The two big pieces have been captured with great success. You can hear an abundance of detail and when the full ensemble sings out at full volume, the sound is magnificent. John Milsom’s notes are first-rate.

This is a simply terrific disc. I’ve admired all of the previous ORA Singers releases but, considering both the expert performances of the smaller works and the thrilling forty-part performances, I’m inclined to think this is their finest achievement to date.

John Quinn

Thomas TALLIS (c 1505-1585)
Spem in alium (Forty-part motet) [9:21]
Derrick GERARDE (c 1540 – 1580)
O Souverain Pasteur [5:24]
Alfonso FERRABOSCO I (c 1543-1588)
In Monte Oliveti [4;04]
William BYRD (c 1540 -1623)
Domine, salva nos [3:06]
Anonymous (plainchant)
Fructum salutiferum [0:28]
Tu es potentia [3:39]
Philip van WILDER (c 1500 – 1553)
Pater Noster [4:08]
In ieiunio et fletu [4:15]
Decantabat populus Israel [3:04]
Anonymous (plainchant)
Ex altari tuo, Domine [0:30]
Judica me, Domine [7:08]
William BYRD
Fac cum servo tuo [4:17]
Derelinquit impius [3:42]
Philip van WILDER
Vidi civitatem [8:06]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b 1959)
Vidi aquam (Forty-part motet) [9:07]

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