Review BBC Music Magazine

... and ...
Natasha Loges, BBC Music Magazine
Thursday, 21. January Link

This beautifully conceived recording opens with two works by Caroline Shaw and Julia Wolfe, interleaved with groups of sacred works by Arvo Pärt as well as six Laude from Cortona in Tuscany. The Laude, drawn from a 13th-century manuscript which was only discovered in the 19th century, are imaginatively arranged by Paul Hillier.

Sung with a huge expressive range, from rustic energy to rapt contemplation, the medieval works forge connections with the 21st-century compositions through shared keys, motives, textures and words. But there is plenty of variety, from the slow and contemplative, to the lilting and dancelike. This is outstanding programming.

From the first tentative notes of ‘and the swallow’, Caroline Shaw transports us into a spacious, three-dimensional world. Her setting of the words ‘How beloved is your dwelling place’ opens with warm, consonant harmonies, but then unfolds into the highest reaches of the choir’s range, like the swallow whose nest is so beautifully hymned.

The energy is ramped up with the first ‘Laudario’, an ebullient song of praise for the Virgin Mary. The rustic, cheeky approach contrasts delightfully with Shaw’s austere soundworld. Such versatility enlivens the whole recording.

Wolfe’s ‘Guard my tongue’ is a painterly work, long strips of sound unfurled and punctuated by splashes of text. These, in turn, accumulate into new layers, building up a densely populated canvas. Its solo-ensemble alternation is recalled in the following ‘Laudario’, celebrating the birth of Christ, and in the following Laudes. Similarly, the unison-harmony structure of the Laudes is recalled in Arvo Pärt’s Virgencita.

Thematic connections are to be teased out everywhere. For example, Pärt’s transparent, harmonious Kleine Litanei was written for the reopening of St Virgil’s Chapel in Vienna, an underground medieval shrine dating from the same century as the Laudes. The Virgencita, similarly, recalls the Laude in praise of Mary. The subject of Wolfe’s ‘Guard my tongue’ is re-invoked in Pärt’s ‘From the mouths of babes’.

Above all, this is consummate choral singing, luminous, multi-coloured and virtuosic, each word lovingly and clearly enunciated, each line beautifully shaped, in a performance of deep, rapt spirituality. Collectively, Hillier’s singers create moments of exquisite tenderness and stillness, while solos are individual and characterful. The sweet-sour, major-minor world of Pärt’s Kleine Litaneisends shivers down the spine. The sublime, close harmonies of Habitare fratres in unum are weightless and timeless. To close, Pärt’s ‘And I heard a voice’, intones, consolingly, that after their labours, the dead will finally rest.

I would have liked liner notes which tell us more about these fascinating works, but this is a minor gripe. The acoustic of the Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen is sympathetic and warm, the recording quality outstanding, creating a remarkably layered, spatial listening experience. This recording offers spiritual revelation and sonic pleasure from start to finish.