Wednesday 30 March 2022

New wine in old bottles: ORA Singers in Victoria's Marian motets and newly commissioned modern reflections

Stella - Victoria, Mark Simpson, Alexander Campkin, Francisco Coll, Cecilia McDowall, Will Todd, Julian Wachner; Ora Singers, Suzi Digby; Harmonia Mundi

- Victoria, Mark Simpson, Alexander Campkin, Francisco Coll, Cecilia McDowall, Will Todd, Julian Wachner; Ora Singers, Suzi Digby; Harmonia Mundi

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A fascinating pairing of old and new as six composers write motets using texts set by Spanish Renaissance composer Victoria, including four newly commissioned reflections

Suzi Digby and Ora Singers continue their development of new repertoire reflecting old with their latest disc, Stella - Renaissance Gems and their Reflections, Volume 3: Victoria on Harmonia Mundi in which the choir performs six Marian motets by Victoria with newly commissioned modern 'reflections' from Mark Simpson, Alexander Campkin, Francisco Coll and Julian Wachner, plus modern pieces by Cecilia McDowall and Will Todd.

The disc is organised quite strictly, we begin and end with the Ave Maris Stella plainchant, and then there are pairs of motets, one by Victoria and one by a contemporary composer each setting the same text. The compare and contrast is fascinating, and whilst the contemporary composers take elements from their chosen models thankfully there is nothing slavish about the modern music. As a contemporary composer who has both sung a lot of this Renaissance repertoire and written contemporary polyphony (including a couple of such reflections), what is fascinating about the music on the disc is how little of Victoria's love of polyphony makes its way into the modern pieces. The idea of four (five, six or eight) intertwining voices, where the onward line is more important than the vertical seems to be something missing from many modern composers' armoury. Here we have some lovely and haunting melodies, fascinating and striking harmonies and inventive textures, but little real modern polyphony.

After the opening plainchant, sung with bright, firm, flexible tone, we get Victoria's glorious eight-part Ave Maria. What you notice about Suzi Digby's approach both here and in the other Victoria pieces, is the way she concentrates on the sheer beauty rather than Latin emotional intensity. The result is a luminous sound, a slow unfolding of beautifully shaped phrases and clarity of texture, and perhaps a certain cool beauty.

Mark Simpson says in his note about his Ave Maria that what struck him about Victoria was the way he could inspire spirituality and reverence. Simpson's Ava Maria combines a lyrical melody with opaque harmonies. The work moves from homophony to moments of melody unfolding over more rhythmic textures. The result is rather lovely, and expressive in a modern way.

Next comes Ave Regina caelorum, first Victoria's sung with clarity and beauty, with moments of real emotional directness. Then Alexander Campkin's modern version. This begins with the basses singing low, the voices gradually come in but harmony is very static, creating a poised luminous sound, gradually harmony moves more yet still slow moving as it forms a backdrop for melodic fragments emerging from the textures. Campkin uses these as the building blocks for the piece to develop to a stunning climax with solo voices against choral texture, slowly unwinding to a luminous close.

Victoria's Ave Maris Stella is a hymn, the composer providing polyphony to alternate with plainchant and the result has a directness not always felt in the composer's other music.  Francisco Coll's Ave Maris Stella begins with a strong, direct and almost violent choral gesture. The harmonies are always striking and Coll shows a stunning control of texture throughout.

Then comes the finely shaped polyphony of Victoria's five-part Alma Redemptoris Mater. Cecilia McDowall has written a number of Marian motets and her approach often builds on the the style of music that choirs will be singing in the rest of the programme. Her Alma Redemptoris Mater was written in 2010 for the Marian Consort and shows a willingness to combine modern polyphony with memorable melody. There is a lovely clarity to the textures, and moments of sheer radiance.

Victoria's Vidi Speciosum might only be for six voices but he achieves some remarkable textures and colours with these forces. ORA really relish the challenge, giving us some moments of finely luminous sound. This is followed by Will Todd's Vidi Speciosum is an eight-part setting written in 2012 to celebrate 25 years of the chamber choir Felicitas. Victoria's setting has a broadness to the structure which is well matched by Todd's music. He writes in his familiar style, textures (largely homophonic) which shine with magical harmonies, illuminating the words with a lush richness.

The final Victoria piece is his Regina Coeli, using eight voices divided into two unequal choirs to creating some superbly sophisticated and magical moments, with the choir's clarity really making the music shine.

To complement this is Julian Wachner's version, again for eight voices (it should be said that this commission is somewhat striking for non-musical reasons, as Wachner has been fighting allegations of sexual assault). This is a dazzling choral showpiece as Wachner uses his forces to create a series of startling choral textures. He seems less interested in the words per se, and more in what his voices can do. I am not sure about the work as a reflection of Victoria's Regina Coeli, but as a virtuoso choral work it makes a stunning finale.

Plainchant - Ave Maris Stella
Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548-1611) - Ave Maria a 8
Mark Simpson (born 1988) - Ave Maria
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Ave Regina coelorum
Alexander Campkin (born 1984) - Ave Regina coelorum
Tomas Luis de Victoria  - Ave Maris Stella a 4
Francisco Coll (born 1985) - Stella
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Alma Redemptoris Mater a 5
Cecilia McDowall (born 1951) - Alma Redemptoris Mater
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Vidi Speciosum
Will Todd (born 1970) - Vidi Speciosum
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Regina Coeli
Julian Wachner (born 1969) - Regina Coeli
Plainchant - Ave Maris Stella
Ora Singers
Suzi Digby (conductor)

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