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"The Sacred Flame - European Sacred Music of the Renaissance and Baroque Era"

The Cambridge Singers; La Nuova Musicaa
Dir: John Rutter

rec: Jan 2009, London, University College School (Great Hall)
Collegium Records - COLCD 134 (© 2009) (78'26")

Felice ANERIO (c1560-1614): Christus factus est a 4; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118)a; Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707) (attr): Magnificat (BuxWV Anh 1)a; Giovanni GABRIELI (1557-1612): Jubilate Deo a 8a; Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (c1561-1613): O vos omnes a 5 [7]; JOAO IV (1604-1656): Crux fidelis a 4; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1440-1521): Ave Maria a 4; Hans-Leo HASSLER (c1564-1612): Dixit Maria a 4 [6]; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Ave verum corpus a 6 [2]; Timor et tremor a 6 [1]; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Beatus vir a 6a [11]; Cantate Domino canticum novuma [10]; Christe, adoramus tea [10]; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (1525-1594): Exsultate Deo a 5 [4]; Sicut cervus a 4 [3]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Welt a 8 (SWV 36)a [8]; Selig sind die Toten a 6 (SWV 391)a [12]; Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1612): Laudate Dominum a 5a [9]; Tomas Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Jesu, dulcis memoria a 4; O vos omnes a 4 [5]

(Sources: Orlandus Lassus, [1] Primus liber concentuum sacrorum, 1564; [2] Mottetta typis nondum uspiam excusa, 1582; Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, [3] Motectorum liber secundus, 1584; [4] Motectorum liber quintus, 1584; [5] Tomas Luis de Victoria, Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, 1585; [6] Hans-Leo Hassler, Cantiones sacrae de festis praecipuis totius anni, 1591; [7] Carl Gesualdo da Venosa, Sacrarum cantionum liber primus, 1603; [8] Heinrich Schütz, Psalmen Davids sampt etlichen Moteten und Concerten, 1619; [9] Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Cantiones Sacrae, 1619; [10] Giulio Cesare Bianchi, Libro primo de motetti, 1620; [11] Claudio Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, 1640; [12] Heinrich Schütz, Geistliche Chormusik, 1648)

[LNM] Joel Raymond, Sarah Humphreys, recorder, oboe; Hannah Tibell, George Crawford, violin; Emma Alter, Alexandria Lawrence, viola; Graham Walker, cello; Jan Robert Zahourek, violone; Mark Williams, organ

When I looked at the tracklist of this disc I wondered why this recording was made. Most items are well-known, and a respectable number belong even to the core of the vocal music of renaissance and baroque, and because of that are often recorded. Does it make sense to record them once again?

Questionable is the use of a choir in this programme. Actually, none of the compositions on this disc is suited for a mixed choir of 31 singers. The only work where such a choir - with a little good will - can be considered appropriate is the opening piece, the 8-part Jubilate Deo by Giovanni Gabrieli. But in reality it is rather disappointing. The vocal parts are doubled by instruments, and that is in accordance with the practice in the San Marco in Venice, where he worked as organist. But here only strings are used, and with a choir of this size, they are hardly audible. In addition, considering the character of this motet the use of cornetts and sackbuts had been more suitable.

The three pieces by Monteverdi belong to his most popular. Beatus vir is much more suitable for solo voices than a choir. It is only at the end, on the words "exaltabitur in gloria", that solo voices are used - but why only here? The performance is rather flat, and is short on dynamic accents. That is also the case with the next two motets by Monteverdi, Christe, adoramus te and Cantate Domino where the text expression leaves something to be desired. This is partly due to the fact that the music is performed by a choir rather than a small-size vocal ensemble. But generally too little attention is paid to the text. An example is Palestrina's motet Exsultate Deo in which the word-painting isn't really coming off in The Cambridge Singers' performance.

Very well-known are O vos omnes by Gesualdo, Timor et tremor by Lassus and, most of all, Ave Maria by Josquin. The latter piece receives an outright flat and boring performance, in a rather slow tempo. But the pieces from the renaissance fare a bit better than the baroque items, which are most disappointing, not only Monteverdi's, but also the two items by Schütz. In Selig sind die Toten too little is made of the contrast between "sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit" (they may rest from their labours) and "und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach" (and their works do follow them). In Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Welt the choir tries to articulate appropriately, but as their is little differentiation in dynamics between the various words and syllables this doesn't really work.

It is rather odd that two compositions are attributed in the tracklist to composers who almost certainly did not compose them. Jesu, dulcis memoria is almost certainly not written by Victoria, but probably dates from a later time, as the liner notes tell. And the Magnificat performed here has often been attributed to Buxtehude, but it is very doubtful that he has written it.

The motet O vos omnes by De Victoria is written for 'equal voices', but is here performed in the more common scoring of SATB. There is no strict objection against that as it was quite usual to adapt music to the voices available. The liner-notes suggest that the pieces for such equal voices were probably meant to be performed at a lower pitch. That seems rather unlikely. Victoria added to his indication 'quattuor vocis paribus' per tiples, for trebles. That doesn't exclude a downward transposition, but that seems not to be the original intention of the composer.

As one may cconclude from what has been written so far I am not enthusiastic about this disc. The choir is a good ensemble, but just not appropriate for this repertoire, and and as a result the interpretations don't do justice to the various compositions on the programme. The instrumental ensemble plays well, but its performances are mostly dynamically as flat as the choir's singing.

The items on the programme seem to be performed in random order, without any logic. The booklet contains short notes to every piece, as well as the lyrics with an English translation. As almost all compositions are available in better performances i can't see any reason to recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

The Cambridge Singers
La Nuova Musica

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