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GRAMOPHONE (05/2022)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer :
Alexandra Coghlan

After volumes focusing on Byrd and Tallis (3/16, 9/17), ORA and their music director Suzi Digby go international for the third recording in this successful series, turning their gaze on the musical king of the Spanish Golden Age: Tomás Luis de Victoria.

The pairing of Renaissance and contemporary works is a choral music cliché but Digby has found a fresh way in: commissioning or finding 21st-century ‘reflections’ on individual works. These offer a musical facing-page – a dialogue, opposition, extrapolation or amplification, sharing a common text and starting point. The net result is a library of obviously and easily programmable new works that continue to enjoy a rich life in concert programmes. We don’t talk nearly enough about the economics of new music and the commissioners who keep it alive but it’s this kind of canny, easily digestible project that will keep choral music out of the museum and in the mainstream.

It helps that this is easily the best volume in the series so far. We often talk about the cragginess, the monumentality of Spanish polyphony but what’s striking here is the supple beauty and brilliance of the sound. Digby’s sopranos dart like swifts through Victoria’s Regina caeli, tracing out sonic arabesques above sun-warmed lower voices. The great blocks of sound of the eight-voice Ave Maria are gently rounded at the edges, while the ravishing imagery of Vidi speciosam – all flowers and birds and spring – blooms and soars with graceful lightness of touch. In a crowded market, this is properly outstanding singing.

It’s hard to play favourites among the new works. Mark Simpson’s Messiaen-nodding Ave Maria – wide-spaced chords opening windows on to broad harmonic landscapes – shares a spirit but not a sound world with Julian Wachner’s Regina caeli, whose muttered intercessions multiply and cascade: a dazzling sound picture of the ‘multitudes of the heavenly host’, sly rhythmic displacement keeping things fluid, suspended. Boldest is Francisco Coll’s Stella – a musical prayer that comes not, like so much here, from a place of affirmation and certainty but shrieking, agonising doubt.

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