The idea for the small choir, ORA http://orasingers.co.uk grew out of the belief that we are entering a second Renaissance in choral composition. Part of this belief includes the commissioning of choral works from some of the world’s most exciting composers, works that reflect on Renaissance masterpieces.
Directed by Suzi Digby www.suzidigby.com , ORA is a professional a cappella vocal ensemble that seeks to captivate audiences with the highest standards of musical excellence combined with a fresh and engaging approach to performance. ORA gathers together some of the UK’s leading ensemble singers. All of the singers within the group have performed with the leading professional choirs in Europe
ORA make use of professional Stage Directors and Designers to produce full productions rather than just traditional concerts. They have planned an ambitious programme of two recordings each year for their first five years with each album containing new commissions.
Following up on their enthusiastically received debut disc Upheld By Stillness, ORA’s latest release from Harmonia Mundi http://ukstore.harmoniamundi.com is entitled Refuge from the Flames.
Whatever one’s religious beliefs - or none - it is difficult to argue with Girolamo Savonarola’s (1452-1498) motto taken from Psalm 132 ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’ Savonarola was a Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. Sadly he did not seem to inspire much unity as he was hanged as a heretic and his body burnt in the main square of Florence. It is around Girolamo Savonarola’s writings and music that this concert is based.
Savonarola wrote a meditation on Psalm 50 shortly before his death and we hear it here in the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (c.1582-1652). Rather than present what may have been an erroneous transcription of the work, ORA present Allegri’s original unadorned version before adding ornaments and finally reaching the better known ‘erroneous’ version. ORA shape this music quite beautifully delivering something of a revelation in the opening unadorned part. These fine singers bring many lovely individual moments and when the soprano does rise up high it is especially lovely, pure and clear, gliding in the acoustic.
Savonarola himself composed a number of works, three of which are heard here. Iesu, sommo conforto is a setting of one of his own meditations. It is a surprisingly distinctive setting, superbly handled with all its varying rhythms by the male voices of ORA. The trio of soprano, tenor and bass voices bring a very fine, intimate quality to Savonarola’s gently melancholy Alma, che si gentile before six male voices from ORA find a lovely gentle sway to his Che fai qui, core? with beautifully controlled dynamics and some lovely harmonies.
Luca Bettini (c.1489-1527), also a Dominican friar, was inspired by Savonarola. Here ORA sing his Ecce quam bonum (Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity) a text from Psalm 132 that is closely associated with Savonarola. This is a striking performance with solo soprano and tenor finding their way through Bettini’s little twists and turns with terrific agility, blending finely.
The French composer Philippe Verdelot (1480/85-c.1530/32) is generally considered to be the father of the Italian madrigal. The full choir bring a lovely texture and sonority to his setting of texts from Psalms 31 and 132, Letamini in Domino weaving the various strands beautifully to a lovely conclusion.
Savonarola’s writings inspired some of the greatest compositions of the 16th century such as William Byrd’s (c.153940-1623) setting of the Dominican’s words, Infelix ego. The choir allow this wonderful music to unfold so naturally, slowly allowing different textures to appear, varying dynamics, colouring this music quite beautifully. They weave some terrific passages, developing some quite wonderful textures with an ever developing flow.
Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b.1977) www.eriksesenvalds.com has also set the text of Infelix ego in response to a commission from ORA. It opens quite magically, gliding quietly and gently forward until expanding and gaining in passion. Ešenvalds’ lovely vocal effects are exquisitely handled here, this choir bringing such very fine textures and colours to this fine piece. The piece moves through some absolutely exquisite moments, beautifully sung by this fine choir and out of which solo voices rise, gently and quietly, Ešenvalds bringing his unusual vocal ideas to point up the texts.
Savonarola’s motto Ecce quam bonum is found in the Franco-Flemish composer Jean Richafort’s (c.1480-c.1547) O quam dulcis. The choirs find a lovely dynamic ebb and flow in this lovely setting, weaving lovely harmonies and textures.
ORA bring a lovely gentle flow to Tristitia obsedit me, mango a setting of a meditation by Savonarola by the French composer Claude Le Jeune (c.1528/30-1600) with the most exquisite textures and colours, rising through some very fine moments, bringing a lovely clarity.
The text of Ecce quomodo moritur was used by Savonarola’s followers in their devotions to the friar. Here ORA sing an anonymous setting of the text, bringing a fine dignified forward flow, with some exquisitely sensitive touches.
The Franco-Flemish Jacobus Clemens non Papa c.1510/15-c.1555/56) combined the texts of Tristitia and Infelix ego in his Tristitia obsedit me, amici with this choir bringing some lovely individual vocal lines that are wonderfully overlaid and finding some quite beautiful sonorities.
This new release rounds off perfectly with James MacMillan’s (b.1959) https://twitter.com/jamesmacm?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor Miserere that appears out of a hushed opening, slowly and gently rising through glorious passages, ORA bringing the most wonderful control, harmonies, sonorities and depth of feeling. This wonderful setting moves through some strikingly beautiful harmonies with moments of great passion and of haunting beauty, reflecting moments from Allegri’s own setting with the upper voices finding an exquisite purity.
This is a really different approach to such a concert with ORA delivering the most wonderful performances. There is a lovely warmth to the recording though not at the expense of clarity and detail. There are excellent booklet notes with full texts and translations in French, English and German.