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Song of Songs

Song of Songs is Gramophone Editor’s Choice

Peter Quantrill, Gramophone (August, 2009)

One expectation that such an album may raise in its listeners is an answer to the question of what common and special inspiration might composers have taken from contemplating this most erotic of Biblical texts. The symptoms of their reactions might be sensuous melismas, perhaps, and anguished suspensions, surging bass-lines and…let us draw a veil there. Such devices are in abundance, whether chastely deployed in turn by Clemens and Palestrina or flaunted all at once in the selections of Guerrero and Gombert, though no more so than they would be on a programme of Marian or Lenten devotions; and these are just the opening four tracks.

That unfair calculation ignores the plainchant antiphons between each pair of motets. It is rare for me to feel that such interspersions work on CD – let’s get straight to the polyphony – as well as they must in a genuinely liturgical context, but they do here, thanks to the quiet good taste and stylistically homogeneous approach of Stile Antico, with an especially winsome unanimity to the female-only Tota pulchra es.

Indeed, these are just the sort of performances I’d hope to hear in church, which was (one feels) the practical and creative laboratory for what is recorded: full but not strained singing, allowing an advantageous acoustic and the number (12) and freshness of voices to take care of blend and balance, with plenty left in reserve for the longer spans of the two magnificent Victoria anthems, Vadam et circuibo and Vidi speciosam. Small choirs of semi-pro ex-Oxbridge choral scholars are not exactly thin on the ground, but with that background in mind, you may still find something new and different: I did, in the naively affecting declamations and unisons of Ceballos and the madrigalian business of Vivanco.