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Juan Bautista COMES (1582 - 1643): "O pretiosum - Music for the Blessed Sacrament"

Amystis Chamber Choir
Dir: José Duce Chenoll

rec: April 2015, Lliria (Valencia), Real Monasterio de San Miguel
Brilliant Classics - 95231 (© 2016) (61'58")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

A la sombra estáis a 8, villancico; Bien te puedes alegrar a 6, villancico; Del cielo es este pan a 4, villancico; El amor que todo es fiestas a 12, villancico; Hombre pues eres soldado a 8, villancico; Immensa divine largitatis a 8, motet O pretiosum a 8, motet; O Sacramentum pietatis a 8, motet; Pues que matas de amores a 6, villancico; Quid hoc Sacramento mirabilius a 8, motet

Carmen Botella*, Elia Casanova*, Quiteria Muńoz*, soprano; Isabel Marí*, Sonia Gil, contralto; Christian Roca*, José Manuel Bustamante, tenor; Giorgio Celenza*, bass
(*) soli
David Antich, recorder; Israel García, cornett; Javier Martos, sackbut; Ovidio Giménez, dulcian; Lixania Fernández, viola da gamba; Sara Águeda, harp; Ignasi Jordŕ, organ

Two years ago Brilliant Classics released a disc of the ensemble Amystis which included music by Joan Baptista Cabanilles (1644 - 1712) who worked all his life in Valencia. The present disc is again devoted to a composer from that town: Juan Bautista Comes. He lived and worked on the brink of the stile antico of the renaissance and the new baroque style which had been developed in Italy. However, listening to the music recorded here the former has a much stronger presence than the latter. José Duce Chenoll, in his liner-notes, states that in his villancicos "Comes shows total mastery of imitative counterpoint and of the relationship between text and music". The former is easily notable but the latter is not, at least not to those who don't understand Spanish. The booklet includes the lyrics but without translations. That does not make it easier to really appreciate the pieces which have been selected for this recording.

Comes has left quite a number of compositions. His oeuvre includes eight masses, two of which are lost. He also composed a St John Passion, a number of Psalm settings and motets, Magnificats, Lamentations and hymns and over 90 pieces which New Grove calls "devotional works". This category includes the villancicos which are part of the programme Amystis has recorded.

Comes was born in Valencia and received his first musical education as a choirboy in the cathedral. He may have worked as organist and choirmaster in nearby Sueca in 1602 and was singer and later maestro de capilla at Lérida Cathedral from 1605 to 1608. He then returned to Valencia and was appointed maestro de capilla at the cathedral. In 1618 he became vice-maestro de capilla in the royal chapel in Madrid but he seemed to miss Valencia and it is documented that he was absent from Madrid several times, apparently due to visits to his hometown. He returned permanently in 1628 and four years later he was appointed maestro di capilla to the cathedral. He must have been held at high esteem: in 1638 he was relieved of duties relating to the choirboys while retaining his full salary, and the authorities continued to pay for medical treatment and other personal expenses. After his death his heirs were paid for the compositions he had bequeathed to the cathedral.

Many of Comes' compositions are devoted to the Blessed Sacrament. "Since 1437 the Valencia Cathedral had been home to the Holy Chalice, which according to Catholic teaching, was the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. (...) As a result, the devotional life that Comes lived was focused on the Eucharist", Chenoll states in the booklet. He also refers to the importance of the Eucharist in the Counter-Reformation.

The programme opens with four motets for the feast of Corpus Christi which are all scored for eight voices in two choirs. The technique of cori spezzati was not confined to Venice. Spain had its own tradition; pieces for double choir are also present in the oeuvre some of the main composers of the 16th century. Comes seems to have had a preference for writing such pieces: his oeuvre includes a number of works for two to four choirs. Such a scoring in sacred music was not uncommon but this disc includes also some villancicos for two choirs. Originally the villancico was a secular work, but in the second half of the 16th century this form was increasingly used for religious music. As a result the villancico is a mixture of secular and sacred elements. The texts are sacred but often make use of images which are common in secular texts. The often marked, even compelling rhythms also refer to the genre's origin. The villancicos performed here are much more intimate and restrained, which is probably the effect of their being devoted to the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore the scoring for two choirs of some of them is probably less surprising. It lends them a kind of dignity. The polychorality is the aspect which connects them to the traditional sacred music of the past.

Villancicos are usually divided into coplas (stanzas) and an estribillo (refrain). Some of the villancicos performed here are a bit different. In El amor que todo es fiestas the refrain is embraced by two romances. Del cielo es ese pan has only a refrain. A la sombre estáis has three sections: romance, refrain and verses (stanzas). This is probably what Greta Olson refers to when she in her article on Comes in New Grove writes: "Nearly half of Comes’s extant works are settings of devotional Spanish texts as villancicos or tonadas. These have sections for solo voice(s) and chorus and use folklike and serious musical styles in an unusual three-part structure."

It shows that Comes is not just one of many composers of the early 17th century. Obviously the choice of pieces devoted to the Blessed Sacrament results in a somewhat one-sided picture. However, the quality is such that one would like to hear more from his oeuvre. I am generally positive about these performances. There is some fine singing and playing. However, there is a slight vibrato here and there and the delivery is not perfect. Often I found it hard to understand the text. I also wonder about the acoustic. The recording took place in a monastery but the acoustic is not ideal and a bit too dry for this kind of music. The motets were certainly intended for use in church and that probably is true for the villancicos as well. A little more reverberation would have been preferable.

The main shortcoming of this production is the omission of translations. Because of that it is impossible for the non-Spanish speaker to get fully engaged in this music.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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