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Polyphony for Passiontide

[I] "And the sun darkened - Music for Passiontide"
New York Polyphony
rec: June 2018, Princeton, N.J., Princeton Abbey
BIS - 2277 (© 2021) (58'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Loyset COMPÈRE (c1445-1518): Crux triumphans a 4; Officium de Cruce a 4; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Tu pauperum refugium a 4; Cyrillus KREEK (1889-1962): Taaveti laul 22 a 4; Pierre de LA RUE (c1452-1518): O salutaris hostia a 4; Andrew SMITH (*1970): Salme 55 a 4; Adrian WILLAERT (c1490-1562): Pater noster - Ave Maria a 4

Geoffrey Williams, alto; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, bariton; Craig Phillips, bass

[II] Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): "Super Lamentationes"
Capella de Ministrers
Dir: Carles Magraner
rec: May 24 - 25, 2019, Valencia, Iglesia de la Escolanía de la Virgen de los Desamparados
Capella de Ministrers - CdM 2048 (© 2020) (59'34")
Liner-notes: E/F/ES; lyrics - translations: E/F/ES
Cover & track-list

Èlia Casanova, superius; Hugo Bolívar, altus; Fran Braojos, Albert Riera, Víctor Sordo, tenor; Pablo Acosta, bassus
Carles Magraner, Jordi Comellas, Lixsania Fernández, Pablo Romero, Leonardo Luckert, viole da gamba; Robert Cases, lute

Two discs with music for Passiontide are the subject of this review. The music is largely from the Renaissance, but New York Polyphony also included some modern works, which are stylistically different, but are certainly no dissonances in the programme.

Loyset Compère takes a central role. He shares the fate of many contemporaries of Josquin Desprez in that he is almost completely overshadowed by the great master. Ironically, according to the article about him in New Grove, as it has turned out that Compère was about ten years older than Josquin, "it seems very likely that Compère was a pioneer in some of the stylistic and technical features they share", and which previously were attributed to Josquin. That is how cruel music history can be sometimes. Not that much is known about him: we don't know for sure when and where he was born. It seems that he was from what is now the Belgian-French border, and it is likely that he studied in Paris around 1460. From 1474 to 1476 he was in the service of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. In the latter year his employer, by all accounts a cruel tyrant, was murdered. As a result the chapel was reduced, and Compère was among those who were forced to leave. Nothing is known about his whereabouts in the next ten years. From 1486 Compère is documented as a singer at the royal court of Charles VIII of France. From 1498 until his death he held various administrative posts in Cambrai and Douai. The programme opens with Compère's motet Crux triumphans, on a late medieval devotional text. The largest work on this disc is also from his pen: the Officium de Cruce is a cycle of nine motets, and this was a form that was common at the court of the Duke of Milan. Josquin also wrote several motet cycles, and these may also have been written for the court in Milan. The first motet is a setting of verses from St Paul's letter to the Philippians (ch 2, vs 10 and 8), the second is an antiphon for Good Friday (Adoramus te, Christe). The remaining seven motets are settings of a hymn from the 14th century, Pater sapientia.

Josquin is also included here, but Tu pauperum refigium, the second part of Magnus es tu Domine, is not specifically intended for Passiontide, but rather a prayer for help. As it includes a reference to the salvation by Jesus, it fits well into the programme. Pater noster - Ave Mari, one of the best-known works by Adrian Willaert, is not fundamentally different from Josquin's motet. The programme closes with O salutaris hostia by Pierre de La Rue, a prayer for deliverance on a text by Thomas Aquinas, taken from his hymn Verbum supernum prodiens. The reference to Jesus Passion comes at the opening: "O saving Victim, opening wide the gate of Heaven to us below".

Cyrillus Kreek may be an unknown name to those whose main interest is early music; I certainly did not know him. He was a composer and choral conductor in Estonia; after studies at the St Petersburg Conservatory he taught for some time at the Tallinn Conservatory, but had to leave his post when the Soviet authorities accused him of Estonian nationalist sympathies. He was strongly interested in traditional music, and that comes clearly to the fore in his setting of Psalm 22, which was quoted by Jesus at the Cross. In this work, written in 1914, Kreek mixes elements of traditional Estonian music and 19th-century art music.

New York Polyphony focuses on Renaissance polyphony, but also likes to perform modern and contemporary music, and regularly commissions composers for new music. An example is Salme 55 by Andrew Smith. It is based on the play Notes for a Requiem, which dramatizes the life of Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo. From this, the composer took verses from Psalm 55 and arranged them for the four voices of the ensemble. It sounds much more modern than Kreek's work, but I don't think many early music lovers will be offended by it. In any case, I was able to listen to it without much problem, even though I generally avoid music of our time.

New York Polyphony is an excellent ensemble that one could compare with the former Hilliard Ensemble. The line-up allows for a maximum transparency and the polyphonic fabric takes advantage of that. The (spare) elements of text expression also come off well.

Spanish polyphony had a character of its own, despite the fact that some of the leading composers stayed some time in Rome and became acquainted with what was written there. One of them was Cristóbal de Morales. He was from Seville and it seems possible that he received his musical education from Francisco de Peñalosa and Pedro de Escobar. However, the most decisive influence on his development as a composer came from Rome, where he joined the papal chapel in 1535. His second book of motets was devoted to Pope Paul III. In the 1540s he published a large part of his compositional output, among them two books with masses and a book with Magnificat settings. In 1545 he was granted a leave of ten months; he settled in Spain and never returned, mainly due to his ill health. The strong Roman influence on his oeuvre has resulted in his being considered a 'foreign composer' in Spain.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah were among the main elements of the liturgical repertoire performed during the last three days of Holy Week, known as Triduum Sacrum. They have been set by many composers of the renaissance and baroque periods. Before the Council of Trent, there was no standardisation of the liturgy, and "consequently it should not be surprising that [Morales] neither considered nor felt under any liturgical obligation to compose a complete cycle of nine lamentations, as was the usual practice of the Tridentine reformation (...)", Manuel del Sol writes in the liner-notes to the recording of Morales's Lamentations.

What has come down to us under Morales's name is quite complicated. Several settings have been considered as being written by him, but have in fact been composed by Costanzo Festa. A performance of the Lamentations is only possible by bringing together settings from different sources. The recording by the Capella de Ministrers is based on an edition by Manuel del Sol, who is also the author of the liner-notes. A few years ago I reviewed a recording of these Lamentations by the ensemble Utopia. I can't find out whether they used the same edition as Carles Magraner. I wonder why here we get only six Lamentations, whereas Utopia's recording includes seven. Even the liner-notes to this recording mention seven. So why then is Et factum est postquam omitted?

Another difference is that here the singers are accompanied by viols and lute, whereas Utopia has performed them a capella. The instruments here not only play colla voce, but also play introductions. This seems to have been the practice in the Royal Chapel Choir under Charles V. The liner-notes include this quotation: "The tenebrae begin on the Thursday of Holy Week at the hour Your Majesty arises. The Lamentations are usually recited accompanied on violones and four voices: soprano, alto, tenor and bass". Apparently this is a quotation from a historical source, but unfortunately it is not specified. As the participation of instruments was usually forbidden during Holy Week, one cannot conclude that an a capella performance is historically incorrect. The practice at the Royal Chapel Choir was rather the exception than the rule. Anyway, it makes this recording an interesting alternative to the one by Utopia. The singing and playing by the Capella de Ministrers is excellent. Which of the two recordings one prefers is a matter of taste.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Capella de Ministrers
New York Polyphony

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