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Song of Songs

IRR reviews Song of Songs

Andrew O'Connor, International Record Review (10 June, 2009)

This disc’s theme of musical settings drawing from the ‘Song of Songs’ is a familiar one to lovers of Early Music. The focus here is on polyphonic settings from the Renaissance; but musical interest in the texts continued into the Baroque and was just as strong in Lutheran as in Catholic traditions. It was only in the latter, however, that the multi- layered allegorical and anagogical readings of these Old Testament love-poems were fully explored. In Christian devotional and therefore musical and artistic terms the poems’ protagonists of the lover and the beloved were taken to represent Christ’s love for each man’s soul (on this Catholics and Lutherans agreed). In Catholic countries, the beautiful beloved was further identified with the Church and with Mary, who was herself a ‘figure’ of the Church and a model of the perfect Christian. Some modern secular minds find these matters hard to comprehend and many a similar disc’s booklet essay has run aground trying to explain them. This time, Matthew O’Donovan (who is also a bass in stile antico) navigates the issues skilfully in his essay, a close reading of which should assist listeners in more deeply appreciating the music.

Not that even a casual hearing of the sublime works on this disc could do other than impress and, one hopes, give balm to the soul. The richness and diversity of the settings are extraordinary for a cappella works written on similar themes within a period of about 80 years. We traverse the post- Josquin world of the little-known (but evidently gifted) Lhéritier and celebrated (and scandalous) Gombert through the giants of classical polyphony, Lassus, Palestrina and Victoria, to almost the dawn of the Baroque, with the polychoral motets of Guerrero and Vivanco. Still, it was sensible of the ensemble to intersperse plainchant antiphons frequently throughout the programme for some moments of repose amidst all the polyphonic brilliance. Each listener will find one piece in particular that stands out even in this exalted company. For O’Donovan it is the ‘opulent beauty’ of Clemens non Papa’s Ego flos campi, truly a soaring yet serene masterpiece. Yet, as so often in such mixed recitals, it is the ‘Divine Orlande’ (Lassus) who seems to me to win the palm. His setting of Veni, dilecte mi, which O’Donovan rightly calls ‘madrigalian’, pulses with energy and amorous excitement. It is hard not to think more of the literal than allegorical meaning in Lassus’s sensual, almost erotic setting.

Several members of stile antico are familiar names from the superb Brabant Ensemble, including the three Ashby sisters. Unsurprisingly, both ensembles exhibit a most welcome purity from the female voices. Sometimes the tenors make less than beautiful sounds in moments of high drama, but this is a minor blemish. Where appropriate, the singers add some delicious chromatic spice by applying false relations in some pieces.

Somehow I missed this young British vocal ensemble’s first two releases (they were reviewed in February 2007 and February 2008). This third is so impressive that my omission will be remedied very quickly.