Opera News on Song of Songs
Joanne Sydney Lessner, Opera News (13 November, 2009)
When polyphony first emerged, the Church banned it for the suggestive sensuality of vocal interplay – it must have seemed like musical group sex. So while Renaissance settings of the evocative, often erotic Song of Songs may be less overtly seductive than more contemporary versions, composers such as Lassus, Gombert and Victoria took the Church’s point to heart, exploiting the undulating mesh of voices and the delicious pain trapped within the delayed gratification of dissonant suspensions. Most scholars maintain that these Biblical verses depict King Solomon’s romance with a Shulamite girl, but there have always been those who insist that the texts actually reflect religious devotion (a little hard to buy, given all the fruit and flower imagery attached to body parts). One of the church’s objections to polyphony was that the words became less comprehensible-a justifiable complaint. That said, one can imagine the sly smile of the monks who used plainchant to sneak into their devotions the clearly understood phrase “While the King was on his couch, my perfume gave forth its fragrance.” Alleluia indeed.
The members of the democratically directed twelve-voice a cappella group Stile Antico dig into their vocal lines as if they are physically pressing against one another, so tight is their ensemble, so gracefully conjoined their vocal timbres. They create an aural plushness with gently tempered vibrato and the help of some well-engineered reverb. In the motet “Vadam et circuibo” by Victoria they build drama and intensity brilliantly, somehow managing to sound like they’ve added more then the one extra tenor credited on the track listing. The blanket of sound creates an effect that is, not to put too fine a point on it, orgasmic. The group is equally skilled at the tasteful expressivity demanded by the more devotional settings, such as Gombert’s “Quam pulchra es.” The energized, melismatic “Veni, dilecte mi” of Lassus presents a more impatient musicalization of the same phrases. Lhéritier’s “Nigra sum,” Clemens’s “Ego flos campi” and, especially Ceballos’s “Hortus conclusus,” are strikingly fervent despite their spareness, a testament to the truth that passion need not be demonstrative to be intense.