musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Magnificat anima mea Dominum - El càntic de Maria al s. XVII hispànic" (The Canticle of Mary in 17th-Century Spain)

Exaudi Nos
Dir: Joan Grimalt
rec: June 30 - July 1, 2007, Chapel of St Joan de Sanata
Columna Música - 1CM0184 (© 2007) (42'37")

Juan Bautista COMES (1582?-1643): Magnificat a 8; Diego DE PONTAC (1603-1654): Magnificat a 8; Joan Pau PUJOL (1573?-1626): Magnificat a 4 1. toni; Magnificat a 8 8. toni; Joseph Ruiz SAMANIEGO (fl 1653-1670): Magnificat a 8; Francesc VALLS (c1671-1747): Magnificat a 6

Alexandrina Polo, Olga Ney, soprano; Elisenda Arquimbau, contralto; Josep M. Gregori, alto; Albert Riera, tenor; Xavier Pagès, bass; Lluís Coll, cornett; Jordi Giménez, sackbut; Peter Krivda, viola da gamba; Roger Azcona, violone; Santiago Pereira, organ

The Magnificat is one of the most important parts of the liturgy in Christian churches. It has become a fixed part of the Vespers, and has been set to music by numerous composers from the Middle Ages to the present. It may seem a little ambitious to perform six pieces on the same text as is the case on this disc. But it turns out to be a very good idea. The text has enough contrasting elements to result in differentiated settings. And in regard to the programme performed here it is interesting to hear how the style of composing changes during just more than a century.

It is not that these settings are vastly different. Sure, there are clear differences between Pujol and Valls, to mention the earliest and the latest composer represented here. But in the 17th century the stile antico, the style which was used in the 16th century, was anything but dead. In particular in sacred music many composers made use of that style. That was partly due to the fact that the most modern fashions in compositional styles weren't always appreciated by the ecclesiastical authorities. In particular any close resemblance to the opera was met with criticism.

In Spain there was a general tendency of conservatism in music. Almost all pieces recorded here are rooted in the tradition of Spanish polyphony. All voices are treated equally, and there are no solo parts in concertante style. The instruments don't have an independent role to play, they either play colla voce or replace some of the voices. It was only towards the end of the 17th century that the Italian concertante style gained ground in Spain. In the music on this disc the influence from Italy is the Venetian polychoral style which is used in all but one of the settings of the Magnificat. The most modern piece is the setting by Francesc Valls. His Magnificat is the only one to contain a basso continuo part. But there is still a clear connection to tradition: the piece is in two choirs, the first of which is a so-called coro favorito, here represented by two soloists (soprano and tenor), and a coro di ripieno, performed here with solo singers and instruments.

The fact that the stile antico is used, doesn't mean these compositions are comparable to those of Victoria, for instance. An Italian composer who made use of the stile antico in some of his sacred works was Alessandro Scarlatti. But he didn't fail to follow the fashion of his time in regard to the connection between text and music. And that is what is noteworthy in these Magnificat-settings as well. It is interesting to compare the two versions by Pujol. The four-part setting is by far the most traditional, and is not very different from sacred music of the late 16th century. That also reveals itself in the fact that this is an alternatim setting, in which plainchant and polyphony alternate. The 8-part setting contains a stronger connection between text and music: some verses are set to very contrasting material. Pujol was a prominent composer, born in Barcelona, where he also started his musical career. After several posts in Zaragoza and Tarragona he ended his career again in Barcelona, as maestro de capilla of the cathedral.

Juan Bautista Comes was born and died in Valencia, where he also worked as maestro de capilla of the cathedral. For some time he also was connected to the royal chapel in Madrid. He makes full use of the double-choir texture, and there is some fine text expression, like on the words "misericordiae suae".

Diego de Pontac, who was born in Zaragoza and died in Madrid, was a pupil of Pujol in his hometown and later studied with Mateo Romero in Madrid. He held several positions in Granada, Santiago de Compostela, Zaragoza and Valencia. He ended his career as deputy maestro de capilla at the royal chapel in Madrid. In his Magnificat he follows the text closely, and the mostly homophonic structure is enlived by a declamatory setting of the words.

Joseph Ruiz Samaniego is the least-known composer on this disc. He even doesn't have an entry in New Grove. He has been maestro de capilla at the cathedral of Zaragoza. His setting is very attractive, and shows he was well able to set a text to music in a meaningful way. There are strong contrasts between the verse "Et misericordia eius" and the next "Fecit potentiam". Within that verse the two parts of the second section - "dispersit superbos - mente cordis sui" - are clearly juxtaposed.

These examples may suffice to convince you that the programme on this disc is interesting and captivating, and gives a good idea of the sacred repertoire in Spain in the 17th century. The interpreters do full justice to this repertoire. The ensemble contains of excellent singers and players. The use of voices and instruments in the way it is practiced here gives some idea about the splendour in Spanish cathedrals at the time. I recommend this disc; let the short playing time not withhold you from purchasing it. The booklet contains informative programme notes.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Exaudi Nos

CD Reviews