Song of Songs
Pieces by Ceballos, Lassus, Palestrina & Victoria, and Sonnets by Shakespeare
Ensemble Plus Ultra
Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran
Reviewed: 15 February, 2017
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
A feast of sixteenth-century polyphony at Cadogan Hall. Sensual subjects from the biblical Song of Songs were presented, featuring parallel settings by Victoria and Palestrina. Ensemble Plus Ultra specialises in Spanish Renaissance repertoire and the opening ‘Nigra sum sed Formosa’ – I am dark skinned and beautiful – showed off the singers’ consummate blend and their understanding of the spiritual and emotional drama inherent in Victoria’s sacred works. Colourful triplets rippled through the six parts and Grace Davidson’s unerring and crystalline soprano led the way through this impressive opener. The Palestrina setting of the same text has a very different texture and was performed after the ladies had sung the appropriate Gregorian chant. Male voices were in the ascendant in the motet itself, underpinned by the velvety tones of bass Jimmy Holliday, more formally structured than the Victoria if sung with equal virtuosity.
Shakespeare Sonnets on themes of love and music were read by members of the ensemble. Sonnet XVIII, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, provided a familiar literary addition almost contemporary with the music. Victoria and Palestrina were closer contemporaries; one Spanish, the other Italian. Both spent a large proportion of their lives in Rome, Victoria succeeding Palestrina as Maestro di cappella at the Collegium Germanicum.
The next two pieces are directly related. Victoria used a Motet of Palestrina’s as the basis for Missa Surge propera. Ensemble Plus Ultra performed the show-stopping ‘Gloria’ after the four-part Palestrina, giving us an instant music-history lesson. The Palestrina motet is beautifully constructed, the upper parts forming and intertwining like spun sugar; the text glorifies love and nature. The following Shakespeare Sonnet summed up the concert and the exemplary delivery of the singers: “the true concord of well-tuned sounds”. The first half included a muscular Motet by Rodrigo de Ceballos, Hortus conclusus; it concluded with a narrative of longing from Victoria.
Further riches in the second half with an additional version of Surge propera from Palestrina; impassioned drama matched formal complexity here, equalling Victoria’s ability to go for the emotional jugular. By way of contrast a Lassus motet Veni dilecti mi – Come my beloved – offered lovely detailed singing with chromatic rising motifs. More Shakespeare followed, Sonnet 128, but the delivery was not in the same league as the singing, sadly. More Victoria and Palestrina, with slightly shaky tenor leads, followed but this was nonetheless fabulous intimate singing. Palestrina’s paean to kissing, ‘Osculetur me’, was hauntingly beautiful and the concert finished with the celebrated Victoria Motet to the Blessed Virgin. Steamy lyrics of love, wine and perfume had filled Cadogan Hall.