Fair Oriana: Two Voices

Fair Oriana: Two Voices
Angela Hicks & Penelope Appleyard
VOCES8 records: VCM 134. 68’14


Two Voices is the debut recording from the soprano duo Fair Oriana (Angela Hicks & Penelope Appleyard). It is described as “a unique, diverse collection of beguiling chamber music from renaissance to baroque, with splashes of folk, medieval and contemporary influence along the way”. The pieces are divided into four volumes, exploring the sentiments of happiness in love, intrigue and teasing in love, passion, and the loss of love. As well as all twelve of Thomas Morley’s 1595 a capella ‘Canzonets to Two Voices’, there are other pieces drawn from Fair Oriana’s’ concert programmes together with specially commissioned pieces from contemporary composers Fraser Wilson and Owain Park.

After the first two of Morley’s Canzonets, the invitation to ‘Come Live with Me’, by Fraser Wilson, introduces instrumental accompaniment. Tobias Hume’s ‘Fain Would I Change That Note’ is an arrangement by Fair Oriana of a solo song for two voices, and features improvised ornaments from the two singers. ‘Flora wilt thou tempt me’ opens the second volume. Fraser Wilson’s rhythmic ‘Now is the month of maying’, with its percussion accompaniment, is in the form of a slow, gentle dance. The teasing ‘O thou that art so cruel’ is sung in a low soprano register, and is one of the four Morley Canzonets that use a viol in place of a second voice, reflecting a common practice at the time of instruments taking vocal lines. The volume ends with William Byrd’s ‘O mistress mine’, with its hint that it is time for the teasing to stop and the serious business of love to start.

The third volume explores that serious business, opening with Morley’s ‘Fire and lightening’. Purcell’s seductive ‘Two daughters of the aged stream’ (from King Arthur) sees the two singers trying to lure unsuspecting victims into the stream with them, with the enticing plea ‘come naked in, for so are we’. Owain Park‘s evocative ‘Midnight poem’ is the most substantial piece on the CD, at just over ten minutes. It sets a text by Sapho reflecting on the glittering moon, the repetative motives giving a timeless quality to the music, underlain by some exqusive instrumental accompaniments.

The mood becomes more melancholy for the final volume, with a sequence of songs reflecting the loss of love. It opens with ‘Ah Robyn’ by William Cornysh as the singers bemoan the fact that ‘She lov’th another better than me‘ but will not admit it. Dowland’s ‘O sweet woods’ is a delightful musical depiction of solitariness. The CD finishes with two highlights of the vocal repertoire, Purcell’s ‘With drooping wings’, the final chorus of Dido & Aeneas lamenting the death of Dido, and Handel’s ‘Eternal soure of light divine’ from the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, nicely arranged by Fair Oriana for two voices, one adding words to the original trumpet part.

The arrangements by the two singers are very well done, not least in remaining appropriate to the original piece. The three pieces by present day composers are also well-judged. All are in a thoroughly modern idiom, but with more than a nod to the period ambience of the other pieces on the recording. The accompanying instruments are theorbo, lute and guitar, gamba, lirone and cello, recorder and flute. The twelve Canzonets were recorded in a different venue from the other pieces, but the generous acoustic ambience is nicely balanced between the two recording sessions. Artist Gillian Barrett has provided flower paintings paired with each of the four sections.

Soon after their 2019 formation, Fair Oriana featured in a London Handel Friends’ concert of Handel’s Aminta e Fillide (with Opera Settecento), where they added baroque gesture to their vocal lines. In my review of that event (here), I described the two sopranos as being “… as close to perfect ‘early music’ singers as you can get. Their beautifully clear, focused, fluid, agile and unforced voices, with little or no interfering vibrato, spot-on intonation, and clear diction were combined with exceptional communicative skills, notably during the arias when they directly involved the audience. Their use of stylistically appropriate ornaments and da capo elaborations were excellent”. That description applies equally well to this excellent and beautifully performed recording.