musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"From Spain to Eternity"

Ensemble Plus Ultra

rec: Jan 2014, Ascot, Priory Church
Archiv - 479 2610 (© 2014) (70'39")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Prudentes virgines a 5 [1]; Alonso LOBO (c1555-1617): Ave Regina coelorum a 6 [2]; Missa Prudentes virgines a 5 [2]; Versa est in luctum a 6 [2]; Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): Clamabat autem mulier Chananea a 5; Expandit Sion manus suas a 6; Quanti mercenarii a 6; Alonso DE TEJEDA (c1540-1628): Miserere mei, Deus a 5 [3]; Rex autem David a 5 [3]

Sources: [1] Francisco Guerrero, Motteta, 1570; [2] Alonso Lobo, Liber primus missarum, 1602; [3] Alonso de Tejeda, Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum, [n.d.] (ms)

Grace Davidson, Julie Cooper, soprano; Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano; David Martin, alto; William Balkwill, Simon Wall, tenor; Robert Evans, baritone; Jimmy Holliday, bass

Most people with some interest in art and culture will know the name of El Greco, one of the greatest painters of the late renaissance. But how many know his real name? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in Crete in 1541; at that time the island was part of the Republic of Venice. In 1570 he moved to Rome, and seven years later he settled in Toledo where stayed until his death. In the Middle Ages the town developed into one of the main cultural centres of Spain, and for some time during the 16th century it had the status of capital of Castile, until the royal court moved to Madrid in 1561. This led to its political decline but it remained a cultural centre, partly due to the presence of El Greco.

The present disc was released as part of the commemoration of the painter's death in 1614. It includes music by composers who worked for some time in Toledo. The most famous of them all was Cristóbal de Morales. He is considered the first major composer of sacred music from the Iberian peninsula and the founder of the Spanish 'school' of polyphonists. Between 1535 and 1545 he acted as a singer in the papal chapel in Rome. After his return to Spain he was appointed maestro de capilla in Toledo where he remained two years. He resigned due to ill health. Morales was a prolific composer whose works were disseminated across Europe. Although he had died more than 20 years before El Greco's arrival in Toledo, the inclusion of two pieces from his pen is justified, not only because of his position in the history of Spanish polyphony but also because his music was performed as late as in the early 17th century. In his liner-notes Michael Noone mentions that a document of 1604 indicates that the singing of Morales' lamentations during Holy Week was one of the high points of the Toledan liturgical year.

The main composer in the programme is Alonso Lobo. He was born in Osuna, and at the age of 11 he became a choirboy at Seville Cathedral, when Francisco Guerrero was maestro de capilla. He took a degree at Osuna University and was appointed chapter secretary in 1581. In 1586 he became canon in the collegiate church at Osuna. In 1591 he returned to Seville Cathedral where he acted as assistant to Guerrero. From 1593 to 1604 he worked as maestro de capilla of Toledo Cathedral. It is unfortunate that the Ensemble Plus Ultra recorded the same mass which was included by La Grande Chapelle. Apparently interpreters hardly know what their colleagues are doing. If Michael Noone - director of the ensemble, but not mentioned here as being involved in the recording - had been aware of that recording he may have decided to take another mass by Lobo. After all he composed six of them. Five of these are based on motets by his teacher Guerrero; the present mass is preceded by Guerrero's motet Prudentes virgines. It refers to Jesus' parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom (Christ). The fact that this motet and Lobo's mass are scored for five voices is symbolic. Guerrero's motet is in two sections which both end with the same phrase: "Behold the bridegroom is here, go forth to receive Christ the Lord". Lobo's mass is dominated by imitative polyphony and includes a number of sometimes complicated canons. Some of them were included by Antonio Soler in a treatise as examples of puzzling pieces. For this recording the ensemble made use of a new edition by Bruno Turner with his resolution to the canonic Hosannas. Versa est in luctum is probably Lobo's best-known composition; it is part of the Office of the Dead, and often included in performances of such an office.

Although Lobo's oeuvre is not that well-known the real discovery of this disc is Alonso de Tejeda. In 1604 Lobo returned to Seville, and the next year his position as maestro de capilla was taken by Tejeda. He had already worked as such in various cathedrals across the country, such as León and Salamanca. He remained in Toledo until 1617 when he resigned because of a conflict with his singers; the next year he moved to Burgos. He left a considerable oeuvre; 83 motets have been preserved, and he was one of the first in Spain to make use of the cori spezzati technique. Miserere mei Deus is one of the seven penitential psalms (50/51); Tejeda has set the verses 3 and 4. Rex autem David is one of only two settings by Spanish composers from the renaissance of King David's lament on the death of his son Absalom. These two beautiful motets make one wish to hear more from this composer. He is just one of several masters from the Iberian peninsula who has not received the attention they deserve.

Although it is regrettable that the ensemble Plus Ultra has recorded the same mass by Lobo as La Grande Chapelle this disc has much to offer which lovers of renaissance polyphony and in particular Iberian music will greatly enjoy. The ensemble sings with one voice per part. It is a shame that the acoustic is a bit too dry and as the miking has been rather close the individual singers have quite some presence at the cost of the ensemble. Because of that one can clearly notice the slight vibrato which creeps in here and there. In Morales' motet Quanti mercenarii the first tenor sings the Pater noster, but his voice is hardly audible. Even so I recommend this disc as the performances are overall quite good, and the inclusion of two motets by Tejeda is especially interesting.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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