Since the release of its award-winning recording of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s sacred music, an appearance by Ensemble Plus Ultra is eagerly anticipated. Then the ethereal and faultless soprano of Grace Davidson and the melting bass of Jimmy Holliday provided the distinctive framework as the group gained an enviable reputation, making a persuasive argument for the centrality of Spanish polyphony. The original line-up of six singers has been expanded to eight, the soprano line has been doubled with new singers and Martha McLorinan has replaced Claire Wilkinson as mezzo. This Wigmore Hall programme of Spanish, German and English settings had a Marian devotional emphasis.
Victoria was the dominant composer in the concert’s first part. The opening eight-part ‘Ave Maria’ exemplified the serene, organic ornamentation of the Spanish master, then soprano plainchant led into a ‘Magnificat’. The contrast between chant and the four-part setting, which expanded into six voices for the final “Gloria”, was show-stopping, the singing nuanced and refined. ‘Ave Maris Stella’ followed, exploiting a lower vocal colour, James Arthur and McLorinan acquitting themselves with musical distinction as well as sensitivity to the text. The Marian section of the evening was beautifully balanced to show off different combinations of voices, ending with all eight in ‘Alma Redemptoris mater’, for which Holliday took mellifluous control, although the top-register voices were a little strident. Guerrero’s ‘Canute tuba in Sion’ provided a rhythmically and psychologically complex complement to Victoria’s sunny vision and it was the latter’s intoxicating runs and suspensions that created fabulous vocal drama in ‘Ecce Dominus veniet’ – with collaborative singing of the highest order.
William Byrd’s English Catholic polyphony often conveys a melancholy, biblical nostalgia. ‘Dominae praestolamur’ shows his contrapuntal genius. John Sheppard’s ‘Verbum caro factus est’ then soared with powerful and crystalline edge from countertenor and sopranos. More jewel-like Victoria Motets continued the second half as the nativity theme developed. The unadorned beauty of ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’, in its four-part arrangement by Michael Praetorius, established a folksy feel for the rest of the programme, which included ‘Coventry Carol’ and a German-Latin setting by Hieronymus Praetorius, and it was he who provided a wonderful encore, a setting of ‘In dulci jubilo’ with a fantastically effusive descant.