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Spem in alium – Vidi Aquam

ORA Singers/Suzy Digby (Harmonia Mundi)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Spem in alium – Vidi quam
Tallis: Spem in alium; In ieiunio et fletu; Derelinquit impius; James MacMillan: Vidi aquam; plus choral works by Ferrabosco, Byrd, Gerarde and Van Wilder
ORA Singers/Suzy Digby
Harmonia Mundi HMM902669.70   68:59 mins

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Eight five-voice pods, 40 singers in total – Tallis’s Spem in alium remains one of the towering summits of the choral repertoire. Suzi Digby’s ORA Singers performance, at a touch over nine minutes, is one of the fleetest on record, and boasts an expert choir whose tuning is immaculate and who munch the technical challenges of the piece for breakfast.

Just occasionally the purposeful flow of the interpretation can seem a touch mechanical. But overall this is a formidable piece of singing, enhanced by Mike Hatch’s sensitively tailored engineering. Not to release a surround-sound SACD version seems an opportunity missed, however – session photos show the performers standing in a circle, with a phalanx of directional microphones in the centre.

To write a new piece based on Spem sounds suspiciously like a hiding to nothing. But James MacMillan’s Vidi aquam – an ORA commission, setting a text from Ezekiel – more than matches the challenge thrown down by Tallis’s masterpiece. It begins by imitating Renaissance polyphony, but gradually adopts a more contemporary harmonic vocabulary, with flecks of polytonalism and wonderfully evocative echo effects.

Gripping dynamic contrasts – full choir abruptly sheared away to just a few voices – and some stratospheric soprano writing stoke the dramatic tension further, and the ORA performance is intensely committed. Shorter works by Tallis, Gerarde, Byrd, Ferrabosco and Wilder complete the recital, and a ‘making of’ DVD is included. But it is MacMillan’s Vidi aquam which makes this issue essential – it has the aura of a masterpiece about it.

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Terry Blain