Siglo de Oro: Drop down, ye heavens

Drop down, ye heavens
Advent antiphons for choir and saxophone
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies, director, Sam Corkin, saxophones
Delphian DCD34184. 64’45

I reviewed the concert given by Siglo de Oro during the 2016 Spitalfields Winter Festival (here), and have now been sent the CD that includes most of the music from that concert, including the eight ‘O antiphons’ commissioned by the group. These are based on the Catholic tradition of including special Magnificat antiphons, each beginning with the letter ‘O’, during Advent week services. The well-known Advent hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, is a paraphrase of one of these antiphons. Each of the new commissions (all in English) adds the distinctive sounds of a saxophone to the choir. Acting as a foil to the eight new commissions are three Renaissance O antiphons are included, by Pierre Certon, Antoine de Mornable, and Josquin des Prez.

The CD opens with a short setting, in sparse fauxbourdon style, of the plainchant Advent Prose Rorate caeli (announcing the start of Advent) by Judith Weir. Its English translation gives the CD its title of Drop down, ye heavens. In Will Todd’s O Wisdom, the saxophone opens with a jazz-like riff to the vocals before expanding into filigree passages floating above the subdued vocals. After Pierre Certon’s rich 16th century setting of O Adonai (with some wonderfully scrunchy harmonic clashes) comes Matthew Kaner’s version, using the saxophone as a drone while the slow-moving solo and tightly harmonic choral lines evolve. Bonnie Miksch’s setting of There is no Rose of Such Virtue bring Siglo de Oro’s four excellent sopranos into focus as they bookend the piece.

The influence of Renaissance polyphony on Sam Rathbone’s O Root of Jesse is clear, the relaxed harmonic pulse contrasting with the overlain saxophone solo. Antoine Mornable’s O clavis David features intricate Renaissance polyphony and distinctive false relations. As with the Certon O Adonai, it concludes with a lengthy melisma, something picked up by Francis Pott’s O Key of David with its florid saxophone lines.

Richard Allain’s close harmony setting of O Dayspring finishes with a gorgeous low-set cadence reflecting the ‘darkness and shadow of the earth’. A short interlude between the ‘O’ pieces is provided by Michael Praetorius’s simple harmonisation of the verse Praesepe iam fulget tuum, from the ancient Advent hymn Veni redemtptor gentium. The melody became well-known in Lutheran circles as the Advent hymn Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland which, to this day, is the first hymn in the Lutheran hymn book. Gareth Wilson’s O King of the Nations builds to a climax with the repeated words ‘Come and save mankind’. Stuart Turnbull’s O Emmanuel shows hints of Arvo Pärt in its intersecting of vocal lines and its repetition of the opening words. It closes with ecstatic vocalisations of the word ‘O’.  Josquin des Prez’s O Virgo virginum follows, with its beautiful souring soprano lines. It leads into Ralph Allwood’s concluding O Virgin of Virgins, ending with a whispered ‘mystery’.

It is rarely possible to grasp contemporary music at one listen during a concert, so the chance to listen repeatedly to these excellent compositions is very welcome. Siglo de Oro are an excellent chamber choir, singing with outstanding intonation and clarity of tone. Sam Corkin’s saxophone playing is sensitive and musical. And the new compositions are worth listening to over and over again.

The full CD programme is listed below.

Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Drop down, ye heavens, from above
Will TODD (b. 1970) O Wisdom
Pierre CERTON (1510-1572) O Adonai
Matthew KANER (b. 1986) O Adonai
Bonnie MIKSCH (b. 1970) There is no rose
Samuel RATHBONE (b. 1986) O Root of Jesse
Antoine de MORNABLE (fl. 1530-1553) O Clavis David
Francis POTT (b. 1957) O Key of David
Richard ALLAIN (b. 1965) O Day-spring
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621) Praesepe iam fulget tuum
Gareth WILSON (b. 1976) O King of the Nations
Stuart TURNBULL (b. 1975) O Emmanuel
Josquin des PREZ (c. 1450-1521) O Virgo virginum
Ralph ALLWOOD (b. 1950) O Virgin of virgins


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