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Song of Songs

10/10 from Classics Today

David Vernier, Classics Today (27 April, 2009)

After hearing Jean Lhéritier’s magnificent and deeply affecting setting of Nigra sum you might understandably feel cleansed, blessed, and exonerated from all misdeeds you’ve ever committed, its effect is so spiritually moving and textually illuminating. And we should be grateful that the 12 (or so) singers that make up the remarkable young British vocal ensemble Stile Antico are the polished and stylish vehicle for transmitting this beauty and truth to our ears, and they do this consistently throughout a program that will intrigue and entice all Renaissance choral music fans. The theme is the Song of Songs, which is not exactly an original idea, but it doesn’t matter: the music itself carries the day, and besides, most of this repertoire is not so commonly heard.

Lhéritier is one of those undeservingly lesser-known compositional voices (although happily the Nigra sum recorded here can be found online in the Choral Public Domain Library, minus the abundant, juicy cross-relations Stile Antico provides in its performance!). His style will remind experienced listeners of Gombert (who was a close contemporary and whose marvelous Quam pulchra es is included), from its endlessly flowing, cadence-averse polyphony and heart-penetrating melodic themes right down to the open-fifth ending.

The program intersperses the primary choral works with pertinent plainchant settings of Song of Songs texts–a sensible idea both for variety and for calling attention to the relationship between formal church liturgy and composers’ more elaborate (sometimes more “worldly”) interpretations of these popular passages. The plainchants, each lasting less than a minute, also serve as a nice contrast to the longer motets, the most impressive of which must be Victoria’s huge (10-plus-minute) Vadam et circuibo, recorded many times by others but never better than here. You get a good feeling listening to this recording: good energy, good sound, good music, good sense of style and of the music’s underlying emotional and spiritual context. What more is there to say, except “Happy listening!”