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Stella gems3 HMM905341
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Stella: Renaissance Gems and their Reflections Volume 3
ORA Singers/Suzi Digby
rec. August 2017, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
Latin texts and English & French translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905341 [74:36]

I’ve reviewed most, if not all, of the previous releases by Suzi Digby and her ORA Singers. I’ve been consistently impressed not only by the very high performance standard but, just as much, by the way in which they programme Renaissance music alongside contemporary pieces – many of them specially commissioned – in a way that enables both old and new music to complement each other. That programming trait has been especially evident in their series, ‘Renaissance Gems and their Reflections’, of which this is the third volume. Volume 1 focussed on the music of Tallis and modern responses to it (review) while Volume 2 centred on Byrd (review). This time the spotlight falls upon the Spanish master, Tomás Luis de Victoria. Here we have the opportunity to hear six of his pieces with each one complemented by a modern response to the same text. Of the contemporary pieces, all but those by Cecilia McDowall and Will Todd have been commissioned by ORA and all the pieces written for this project here receive their first recordings.

The programme begins and ends with the plainchant hymn Ave Maris Stella in which female and male voices alternately sing verses before the full ensemble unites for the last verse. At the beginning of the disc, the music is presented as a processional, the voices gradually drawing nearer; at the end the music is sung as a recessional. It’s very effective.

ORA’s account of Victoria’s Ave Maris Stella is perfectly poised; each strand of the eight-part polyphony is clearly heard, but these strands combine into a wonderful whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. The size of the choir (6/4/4/4) is ideal and the blend between the voices is expertly achieved. The five-voice Ave Regina cćlorum is a Compline antiphon. It seems to me that Suzi Digby paces the music with great understanding; her nicely flowing tempo allows Victoria’s disciplined rejoicing to make its full effect. Ave Maris Stella is an alternatim hymn in which the plainchant verses use the same chant that is heard at the start and finish of this programme. The even-numbered verses are set to polyphonic music; amongst these the fluid three-part writing of verse four (from which Victoria omitted the basses) is a special pleasure to hear.

Alma Redemptoris is given a fine, flowing performance; once again the lines are all crystal clear and the balance is expertly judged, both by the conductor and by the singers, who are clearly listening to each other most attentively. Vidi Speciosam stands apart from the other Victoria pieces offered here in that it’s a motet. In this piece the composer set highly expressive lines from the Song of Songs. In his admirable notes Michael Noone comments thus: “With its cascading melodic lines, Victoria’s Vidi Speciosam breathes generous life into the splendidly evocative language of this most contested of biblical passages.” I agree; and in this performance the melodic lines do indeed cascade. The final Victoria item is Regina Cćli. This is set for eight voices, but in unequal choirs (SSAT and SATB). Both music and performance are jubilant and light-footed.

Two of the contemporary pieces were not specific ORA commissions. Cecilia McDowall’s Alma Redemptoris is a fine composition. Here, the textures are less full than elsewhere on the album: perhaps it’s sung with one voice per part; Suzi Digby refers to it as a “solo voice motet”. The reduced textures are one reason why it’s an excellent contrast with and foil to Victoria’s setting of the same text. Another reason is the use of lilting, compound time rhythms. To me, the music seemed to have something of a medieval feel to it. I liked it very much but, then, I’m rarely, if ever, disappointed by this composer’s vocal music. Equally to my taste, though the music is very different, is Will Todd’s Vidi Speciosam. Todd responds to the luxuriance of the text from the Song of Songs with music that is founded upon harmonic language that is rich, warm and jazz-influenced. In fact, it’s a sensuous piece, which is just the right approach. It’s a slow-moving, ecstatic composition and I think it’s gorgeous.

The four commissioned composers all supply brief notes about their respective pieces; this is valuable. Mark Simpson uses some wonderful harmonies in his Ave Maria. The piece falls into four sections, but it’s seamless. Partway through, greater dissonance and urgency are introduced (at ‘Ora pro nobis’) and then the end of the piece is gently dominated by plaintive solo lines for soprano and tenor This is a fine piece. Alexander Campkin’s Ave Regina cćlorum is a fascinating composition. It opens with a low G on the basses and Campkin gradually adds more voices, all the time raising the pitch so that eventually the sopranos are singing three octaves above that original note. As the piece progresses it also becomes increasingly intense. But then after a fervent climax it’s as if we’re hearing the aural equivalent of the other side of an arch as there’s a gradual return to that low G. However, the piece is not palindromic; at the close, the low G is decorated with high, ethereal soprano lines.

The Spanish composer, Francisco Coll’s Stella is a response to his fellow-countryman’s Ave Maris Stella. In fact, Colls uses as his text just the three words in the title of Victoria’s piece. It’s a challenging work, both for the performers, I’m sure, and also for the listener. I hasten to add, though, that it’s challenging in a very good way. Initially arresting and urgent, Coll’s music attains over time a generally calmer mood. It’s a most interesting piece with which I look forward to becoming better acquainted. The final commissioned work is Julian Wachner’s Regina Cćli. He tells us that he “use[d] the text to create an atmosphere of the heavenly host”. The music displays compositional virtuosity and clearly demands vocal virtuosity from the performers. At one point, Wachner, as he puts it, “winks” at Victoria’s setting of the text by quoting from the Spaniard’s piece. It’s a varied piece which covers a lot of ground in a short time span. I found it very exciting.

This is a terrific disc. The quality of Victoria’s music speaks for itself. All of the modern pieces are worthy to stand beside the works of the Spanish master and Suzi Digby is to be congratluated, once again, on providing the impetus for these new compositions. The work of the ORA Singers is consistently superb. Their singing is flawless in every respect and besides technical prowess they bring great commitment to the performances. They have been most sympathetically recorded by producer Nicholas Parker and engineer Mike Hatch. The documentation is excellent. In particular, I learned a great deal about Victoria and his music from the main essay by Michael Noone.

This is another impressive and illuminating addition to the ORA Singers’ discography. I hope there’ll be more soon.

John Quinn

Plainchant Ave Maris Stella [3:01]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (c 1548-1611) Ave Maria a 8 [4:50]
Mark SIMPSON (b 1988) Ave Maria [3:57]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Ave Regina cćlorum [4:37]
Alexander CAMPKIN (b 1984) Ave Regina cćlorum [6:51]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Ave Maris Stella a 4 [6:35]
Francisco COLL (b 1985) Stella [4:34]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Alma Redemptoris a 5 [5:39]
Cecilia McDOWALL (b 1951) Alma Redemptoris [5:09]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Vidi Speciosam [7:22]
Will TODD (b 1970) Vidi Speciosam [7:13]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA Regina Cćli [3:51]
Julian WACHNER (b 1969) Regina Cćli [7:57]
Plainchant Ave Maris Stella [3:00]

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