sanctissima ora HMM90533435

Vespers and Benediction for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary
ORA Singers/Suzi Digby
rec. 2017, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
Texts not included
Harmonia Mundi HMM905334/35 [2 CDs: 85]

These recordings have been ‘in the can’ for quite some time but, as Suzi Digby says in the booklet, the release has been “long in the planning”. The concept is what she terms a “fantasy construction” of the liturgies of Vespers and Benediction; the basis is the Second Vespers of the Feast of the Assumption, following the Tridentine Rite; the Feast is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on 15 August. (I should perhaps explain that on Sundays and major Feasts, First Vespers will be sung (or said) on the previous evening while Second Vespers is reserved for the evening of the Feast day (or Sunday) itself. As William Gaunt points out in his comprehensive booklet essay, the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a standalone service (my words, not Gaunt’s) but is often celebrated immediately after Vespers.

There’s a great deal of plainchant on this album. At a rough calculation some 32 minutes of the album length is plainchant, most of it contained in the Vespers section. The basic structure of that part of the programme – the most substantial – is that the Vespers service is built around Psalms 109, 112, 121, 126 and 147. In each case we hear, sung to plainchant, the Proper antiphon. Normally, in a Vespers service, the antiphon would be followed immediately by the relevant psalm. However, on this occasion, each antiphon is followed by the singing of a musical reflection on the antiphon by a contemporary composer; I’ll consider those pieces separately. Then the psalm is sung to plainchant, followed by a repetition of the antiphon. All the plainchant is sung by the tenors and basses of the ORA Singers with the exception of the hymn Ave Maris Stella; alternate verses of this are sung by the female and male voices and I think that works well.

I’m afraid I have a reservation about an important aspect of the plainchant singing. Each of the psalms is sung very briskly. At this fast pace, the effect is almost as if the chanting is staccato. I can’t imagine why the psalms are delivered in this fashion; you almost get the feeling that you’re listening to monks who are in a hurry to get to their supper! I’ve heard plainchant sung in many contexts and in many ways over the years, but never like this. There may well be some justification of which I’m unaware, but I’m afraid I don’t at all like the effect. I’m all the more perplexed because the other plainchant singing – the antiphons, for example – is done at what I might term a more ‘conventional’ speed; the effect is much more satisfactory.

Since Suzi Digby founded the ORA Singers a hallmark of their programming has been that they’ve juxtaposed pieces of Renaissance polyphony next to contemporary pieces. Very often the modern works have been commissioned to be complementary to a polyphonic piece. It’s a highly successful initiative. Here, the formula has been varied somewhat in that the several of the commissioned works were designed to be ‘reflections’ on the preceding plainchant antiphon rather than on a polyphonic piece. So, David Bednall’s Assumpta est Maria uses the plainchant melody which we’ve just heard as a cantus firmus in his piece. Initially, the cantus firmus is surrounded by light, dancing music. Later, in the second half of the piece the cantus is gorgeously harmonised at a slower tempo. This is a super piece.

For In Homeward Flight Olivier Tarney reflects on the melody of Maria Virgo assumpta est but he sets a text specially written for him by Lucia Quinault. Unfortunately, for reasons I’ll explain later, I couldn’t access the words. However, even though I couldn’t follow the text, I found Tarney’s music most interesting, not least on account of its adventurous ecstatic harmonies. I’ve come to admire greatly the music of John Joubert and I was delighted to discover that he’d been in receipt of an ORA Singers commission. This is a very late work, written only a couple of years before his death. It’s a reflection on the antiphon In odorem unguentorum quorum currimus and Joubert’s imagination was fired by the word ‘currimus’ (we will run), which he generally sets using a triplet. The music begins slowly, then moves into a quicker section before we hear again the opening slow music, but this time much more richly harmonised. I was impressed by this piece which sounds urgent even when the pace is slow.

I’m afraid my reaction to Benedicta filia by Giles Swayne is not so positive. His setting uses SATB solo quartet and SATB choir. The composer describes the music as “a light-hearted and almost balletic meditation, trope or rap on the plainsong melody”. I’m afraid I really couldn’t discern references to the plainsong but that’s my failing, I’m sure. The setting mixes episodes of highly accented rhythmic writing and contrasting legato passages. It’s not to my taste, but I admire the great precision which the ORA Singers bring to the piece. Kim Porter’s Pulchra es et decora is much more to my taste. Here, the music is largely legato and, as befits the text, the harmonic language is warm and sensuous. This is a lovely piece. Incidentally, Ms Porter is a member of the alto section of the ORA Singers. The last of the newly commissioned and recorded pieces in the Vespers section is Julian Anderson’s setting of the Magnificat. He tells us that this piece is designed as a tribute to a range of admired composers of a cappella vocal music, ranging from Dufay to Bach. The music sounds very demanding – though these expert singers make it sound almost easy. There’s a lot of extrovert, exultant music and I enjoyed the piece very much. I suspect, though, that it’s more likely to become a concert piece rather than liturgical because it would take a lot of rehearsal to prepare it for a service of Evensong.

In the Benediction section of the album, we hear two commissioned pieces by the late Swedish composer, Sven-David Sandström (1942-2019). His setting of O salutaris hostia is warm and devotional; the harmonies are rich and close. Right at the end there’s a radiant passage, introduced by the sopranos and altos, which I found particularly appealing. Sandström’s Tantum ergo also impresses. It seems to take the plainsong melody as its starting point, though not for long. Once again, it’s the ending that makes a particular mark; here, the music features really intriguing multi-part and very close harmony. The final commissioned piece is Matthew Martin’s Sanctissima. This is a response not to plainsong but to Francisco Guerrero’s marvellous Ave Virgo sanctissima, which we hear immediately before. Martin writes that he has closely followed the structure of Guerrero’s five-part setting. The result seems to me to be a highly successful homage, rooted in deep respect for and understanding of the Guerrero piece; Martin takes the Spanish composer’s musical motifs and clothes them in a twenty-first century harmonic dress.

The remaining contemporary piece in this collection is not new: Sir James MacMillan’s Ave Maris Stella dates from 2011. I’ve heard it on several occasions and I rate it highly. The setting largely consists of a long series of block chords within which the harmonies are constantly and rewardingly shifting until the soprano line soars upwards during the lovely ‘Amen’. I’m glad this fine piece was included. There are also a few pieces of Renaissance polyphony; besides the Guerrero piece already referenced, Suzi Digby has included works by Palestrina and Felice Anerio. These are sung with the excellence one has come to take as read from the ORA Singers.

This programme is a fascinating and rewarding mixture of old and new music which works very well; the modern pieces achieve their aim of complementing the music from earlier ages. The performances of the ORA Singers are consistently excellent and the engineering of Mike Hatch presents their voices to very best advantage.

The notes are comprehensive, with valuable essays from Suzi Digby and William Gaunt, together with brief notes about their respective pieces by the contemporary composers. Where the documentation falls down is that texts and translations – which are essential since the words will be unfamiliar to most people – are not included in the booklet; instead, they can be accessed through the ORA Singers’ website, using a QR code. With respect, this is not the same as having the texts readily to hand in the booklet as one listens. In fact, when I tried to access the texts using that code the link which was provided took me to the booklet for a disc of piano variations played by Cédric Tiberghien. Maybe the documentation isn’t available on line until the official release date but this does illustrate the risks of relying on online documentation.

Even if you share my reservations about the singing of the Psalms, I think you’ll still find this a reward and enjoyable album.

John Quinn

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*Works commissioned by ORA Singers & first recordings

CD 1
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1595-1594) Assumpta est Maria
Plainchant Deus in Adjutorium
Plainchant Assumpta est Maria in cælum
David Bednall (b1979) Assumpta est Maria *
Plainchant Dixit Dominus
Plainchant Assumpta est Maria
Plainchant Maria Virgo assumpta est
Olivier Tarney (b 1984) In Homeward Flight *
Plainchant Laudate pueri
Plainchant Maria Virgo assumpta est
Plainchant In odorem unguentorum quorum currimus
John Joubert (1927-2019) Reflections on the plainchant antiphon ‘In odorem’ *
Plainchant Laetatus sum
Plainchant In odorem unguentorum quorum currimus
Plainchant Benedicta filia tua Domino
Giles Swayne (b 1946) Benedicta filia *
Plainchant Nisi Dominus
Plainchant Benedicta filia tua Domino
Plainchant Pulchra es et decora filia Jerusalem
Kim Porter (b 1965) Pulchra es et decora *
Plainchant Lauda Jerusalem Dominum
Plainchant Pulchra es et decora filia Jerusalem
Plainchant Ave Maris Stella
Sir James MacMillan (b 1959) Ave Maris Stella

CD 2
Exaltata est
Plainchant Hodie Maria Virgo cælos ascendit
Julian Anderson (b 1967) Magnificat *
Plainchant Hodie Maria Virgo cælos ascendit
Plainchant Benedicamus Domino

Sven-David Sandström (1942-2019)
O salutaris hostia *
Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) Ave Virgo sanctissima
Matthew Martin (b 1976) Sanctissima *
Sven-David Sandström Tantum ergo*
Plainchant Adoremus
Plainchant Ave Regina cælorum
Felice Anerio (1560-1614) Ave Regina cælorum