Ora Singers – Spem in Alium.Vidi Aquam (CD Review)

Spem in Alium. Vidi Aquam

Ora Singers, Suzi Digby

Harmonia Mundi, 2020

English choral group the Ora Singers, led by Suzi Digby, present Thomas Tallis’s magnificent forty-part motet Spem in Alium on their latest Harmonia Mundi recording. Split into eight choirs of five apiece, the singers are given many opportunities to overlap in successive entrances, interact among cohorts, and sound immensely scored chords. The Ora Singers present a beautiful performance that combines purity of sound with thrilling forte climaxes. Digby deserves plaudits for her careful shaping of phrases and mastery of Spem’s myriad challenging balancing acts. 

Most of the rest of the recording contains Latin works by composers active in England during the sixteenth century. These include three of foreign descent – Derrick Gerrard, Philip Van Wilder, and Alonso Ferrabosco the Elder. Van Wilder’s Pater Noster is filled with delicately corruscating lines and the composer’s Vidi civitatem is particularly poignant, with arcing entries blending with subdued declamatory phrases. Ferrabosco is as well known for suggestions of criminality and spying (for Queen Elizabeth, no less) as he is for his music. Ferrabosco’s In Monte Oliveti contains widely spaced, sumptuous harmonies while Judica me Domine is performed with long flowing imitative lines and solemn pacing. Gerrard’s O Souverain Pastor est maistre is a deft display of canonic writing, while his Tua est Potentia employs pervasive imitation. There is relatively little by Gerrard that has been recorded, which is a pity: he is a fine composer. 

Works by more famous composers include Tallis’s covertly recusant motet In jejunio et fletu, in a particularly moving performance, and a delicately shaded Derelinquit impius. William Byrd is represented by two motets,  Domine, salva nos, its introductory homophonic passages tinged with chromaticism and succeeded by elegant imitative entries, and Fac cum servo tuo, which instead begins in canon straightaway. 

The recording’s closer is a contemporary piece written in response to Spem in Alium, Vidi Aquam, a forty-part motet by James MacMillan. Using small paraphrases of the Tallis piece interwoven with new material, MacMillan creates an exuberant composition  filled with an abundance of stratospheric ascending lines.  it is a thrilling, and tremendously challenging, companion work.

-Christian Carey

The Song of the Stars (Naxos CD)

The Song of the Stars

British Music for Upper Voice Choir

Naxos CD 8.573427

Wells Cathedral School Choralia, conducted by Christopher Finch; Eleanor Turner, harp; Elliot Launn, piano

Occupying as it does an important niche in choral literature, the CD Song of the Stars demonstrates the vitality and importance of Naxos Records’s “no stone left unturned” recording ethos. Apart from A Ceremony of Carols, A Survivor from Warsaw, and a few other well known works, many often think of SATB – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – groupings as the default vocal ensemble for which truly meaningful choral literature is created. Here we find a number of gems for upper voices – many of them in their debut recordings – that provide a strong case for inclusivity.

The program contains well known composers such as Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, and John Tavener, who rub elbows with some of the finest contemporary British composers: Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, and James Whitbourn. A find for me was the music of Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), represented on the disc by her Regina Caeli. The piece alternates lustrous polychords with sprightly counterpoint in an attractive blend of elements that makes me want to delve deeper into McDowall’s output. There are also works by composers familiar to me, such as O’Regan’s Alleluia, Iaus et gloria, that are impressive compositions made even more appealing by their authoritative performances.

This is the recording debut of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia. Conducted by Christopher Finch, this is a fine group that demonstrates strong technical skills, beautiful tone, and excellent musicality throughout Song of the Stars. Indeed, the title work, composed by former King’s Singers member Bob Chilcott, has a perilously demanding tessitura that conventional wisdom would suggest disqualifies some groups from attempting it. The Wells Choralia make it sound eminently attainable. One hopes that conductors and composers take a careful listen to this CD. It provides many ideas for possible programming and the creation of new works for upper voice ensembles. Recommended.

Video of Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia, Iaus et gloria”