Thursday 16 February 2017

The Food of Love: settings of the Song of Songs from Ensemble Plus Ultra

Illustration for the first verse of the Song of Songs, a minstrel playing before Solomon (15th century Rothschild Mahzor)
Illustration for the 1st verse of the Song of Songs,
a minstrel playing before Solomon
(15th century Rothschild Mahzor)
The Food of Love - Song of Songs Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus, Ceballos; Ensemble Plus Ultra; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Beautifully realised vocal ensemble performances of texts which hover between sacred and secular

Ensemble Plus Ultra made its Cadogan Hall debut as part of the Choral at Cadogan series on Wednesday 15 February 2017, with a programme of settings of the Song of Songs by Victoria, Palestrina, Lassus, and Ceballos, interleaved with readings of Shakespeare's sonnets. The ensemble, soprano Grace Davidson, mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan, counter-tenor David Martin, tenors William Balkwill and Simon Wall and bass Jimmy Holliday, makes something of a speciality of music from the Spanish Golden Age but in this programme they also visited Rome for the music of Palestrina and Munich for the music of Lassus.

Liturgically the text of the Song of Songs was taken to refer to the Church as the bride of Christ, though not all settings of the texts from the Song of Songs were written to be used liturgically. Palestrina's 29 settings may well have been designed for private performance, we don't really know. And some of the texts get a bit near the knuckle for liturgical use. Composers responses to the texts varied, with settings ranging from the positively madrigalian with lots of word colouring, to the simple pure lines of classic Palestrina.

The programme opened with three settings of Nigra sum sed formosa, by Victoria and by Palestrina with chant in the middle. In Victoria's setting the group brought out a real sense of the word play, with some vivid interaction between different groupings, whereas Palestrina's response was much more smooth lines and nice blend. In between we had the poised chant sung by the two women in the group.

The ensemble consists of some of the most experienced consort singers around, and this shows in the group's combination of blend and character; individual lines were characterised but the whole was highly responsive. I felt that they took some time to quite get the measure of the tricky acoustic of the Cadogan Hall and balance in some of the early items in the programme was not ideal.

I felt that the group did not always get beyond the calm beauty of Palestrina's music. Their performance of his four-part Surge propera was perfectly done but it was the more extrovert, madrigalian five-part setting which came alive. The same was true of Trahe me post where they really brought out Palestrina's mobile lines, whereas his Osculetur me was perfectly poised and controlled.

The performance of Palestrina's four-part Surge propera was followed by the 'Gloria' from Victoria's mass based on the motet. Counter-tenor David Martin explained how this was the only one of Victoria's 15 parody masses to use a Palestrina piece. Throughout the concert Martin's introductions went well beyond 'hello, welcome and we are going to next perform...' to being both entertaining and informative.

The Victoria 'Gloria' was vibrant with a lovely sense of forward moment, and some nicely florid lines. By contrast Victoria's Vadam et circuibo was quite intimate, with a steady tempo allowing the words and details to come out, thought it was not without vibrant climaxes. Victoria's Quam pulchri sunt was also quite steady, this time with the long  melismatic runs enlivening the texture. In Trahe me post Victoria created a rich texture by combining highly mobile lines against a slower moving backdrop.

But it was with the final work in the programme, Victoria's great motet Vidi speciosam that the performers seemed to move their performance into another league. The text is one of many liturgical ones which conflates the image of lover as dove (from the Song of Songs) with the ideal of the Virgin Mary. Ensemble Plus Ultra's performance brought out the vibrancy of Victoria's setting with the different groupings in the ensemble interacting vividly.

There were two works not from Palestrina or Victoria. We heard Lassus's Veni dilecti mi which is a lovely madrigalian setting of the text, surely intended for an intimate performance, and Hortus conclusus by one of Victoria's older contemporaries Rodrigo de Ceballos. It was quite a stately piece, but with some lovely rich harmonies.

The musical items were interspersed with readings of four of Shakespeare's sonnets (18, 8, 128, 116), read by Jimmy Hollyday, Martha McLorinan, David Martin, and William Balkwill. I can understand why the group felt the need to break the programme up, and why the Shakespeare was chosen, but the sonnets are tricky to bring off when read publicly, with the great difficulty of creating the right intimacy in such a large public arena. The four readers were not entirely successful and did not bring the same expressivity to their speaking as to their singing.

We could perhaps have had some more seductively erotic textures in the music, but at their best Ensemble Plus Ultra brought a highly communicative intimacy to their performances and they reflected the interesting pull between sacred and secular in the settings of these texts.

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