Upheld by Stillness

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AllMusic Review by James Manheim

Plenty of British choral recordings mix Renaissance and contemporary compositions, but few have done so with the explicit goal of asserting that today's scene marks a golden age of choral music comparable to that of the Renaissance, and few have tied the contemporary and the Renaissance compositions so closely together. This release by the 18-voice choir ORA under director Suzi Digby would be notable for the effort that went into its shaping alone: no fewer than six new compositions were commissioned for inclusion on the album. After an introductory pair of circumstantially linked motets by William Byrd and Philippe de Monte, the main content of the program includes Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, plus five contemporary compositions that take each of its five sections as a point of departure. Finally, there's another similar pair: Byrd's motet Ave verum corpus is expanded upon by Roderick Williams in the straightforwardly titled Ave verum corpus Re-imagined. The best is saved for last: sample the Williams work (track 14) for some really chilling choral sonorities and for a taste of the stunning accuracy with which ORA renders them. But the other modern pieces, each of which is introduced with a little note from its composer, all have straightforward but novel ways of incorporating Byrd's material. Two of them set modern English texts; two use the mass texts; and one uses another Latin text. The performance of the mass itself is exceptionally strong, capturing its verbal concision and intensity, as if the recusant Catholics who performed it knew they might have very little time and had to make each word count. Harmonia Mundi's recording at St. Alban's Church in Holborn is splendidly attuned to the performers' expressive aims. A highly original choral recording, strongly recommended.

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