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CD reviews

A Renaissance Christmas

[I] "A Renaissance Christmas"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Nov 20 - 23, 2017, London, Church of St Augustine's, Kilburn
Coro - COR16167 (© 2018) (67'11")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon (14th C): Resonemus laudibus; William BYRD (1543-1623): O magnum mysterium/Beata Virgo a 4 [6]; This day Christ was born a 6 [7]; Richard DERING (c1580-1630): Quem vidistis, pastores a 6 [9]; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611): Resonet in laudibus a 5; Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Pastores loquebantur a 6 [4]; Jacob HANDL-GALLUS (1550-1591): Omnes de Saba venient a 5 [5]; Resonet in laudibus a 4; George KIRBYE (c1565-1634): Vox in Rama a 6; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Omnes de Saba venient a 8; Resonet in laudibus a 5 [2]; Videntes stellam Magi a 5 [1]; Peter PHILIPS (1561-1628): O beatum et sacrosanctum diem a 5 [8]; plainchant: Crudelis Herodes; Veni, veni Emmanuel; John SHEPPARD (c1515-1558): Reges Tharsis a 6; Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621): Hodie Christus natus est a 5 (SwWV 163) [10]; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): Videte miraculum a 6; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Quem vidistis, pastores a 6 [3]

Sources: Orlandus Lassus, [1] Sacrae cantiones, 1562; [2] Cantiones aliquot, 1569; [3] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Motecta, 1572; [4] Alessandro Gardano, ed., Motecta festorum totius anni cum communi sanctorum, 1585; [5] Jacobus Handl-Gallus, Opus Musicum, I, 1586; William Byrd, [6] Gradualia seu cantionum sacrarum, liber secundus, 1607; [7] Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets ... fit for Voyces or Viols, 1611; [8] Peter Philips, Cantiones sacrae, pro praecipuis festis totius anni et communi sanctorum, 1612; [9] Richard Dering, Cantica sacra, 1618; [10] Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Cantiones sacrae, 1619

Julie Cooper, Sally Dunkley, Kirsty Hopkins, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, Emilia Morton, soprano; Kim Porter, contralto; Ian Aitkenhead, Daniel Collins, Edward McMullan, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Tim Jones, Rob Macdonald, Angus McPhee, bass

[II] "A Spanish Nativity"
stile antico
rec: March 2019, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMM 903212 (© 2019) (64'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Matteo FLECHA 'el Viejo' (c1481-c1553): El jubilate a 4 [4]; Ríu ríu chíu a 4; Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): A un niño llorando a 5 [6]; Beata Dei genitrix Maria a 6 [5]; Alonso LOBO (1555-1617): Missa Beata Dei genitrix a 6 [7]; Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): Cum natus esset a 5 [1]; Pedro RUIMONTE (15655-1627): De la piel de sus ovejas a 5 [7]; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): O magnum mysterium a 4 [3]

[1] Antonio Gardano, ed., Nicolai Gomberti musici excellentissimi Pentaphthongos harmonia, 1541; [2] Girolamo Scotto, ed., Villancicos de diversos autores, 1556; [3] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Motecta, 1572; [4] Mateo Flecha, Las Ensaladas de Flecha, 1581; Francisco Guerrero, [5] Motecta festorum totius anni cum communi sanctorum, 1585; [6] Canciones y Villanescas espirituales, 1589; [7] Alonso Lobo, Liber primus missarum, 1602; [8] Pedro Ruimonte, El Parnaso español de madrigales y villancicos, 1614

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, soprano; Emma Ashby, Cara Curran, Eleanor Harries Clarke, Katie Schofield, contralto; Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, Thomas Kelly, tenor; James Arthur, Will Dawes, Nathan Harrison, bass

In the course of history, numerous pieces have been written to celebrate Christmas, which gradually developed into the main feast on the ecclesiastical and social calender. The latter explains why such an important part of the Christmas repertoire consists of pieces of a 'popular' nature. It did not take long before the church embraced elements of popular culture and included them into celebrations under responsibility of the church. Andrew Stewart, in his liner-notes to The Sixteen's disc, mentions that the hymn Resonet in laudibus was especially popular in Germany, where it also could be sung on the text Joseph, lieber Joseph mein. "The lilting 'Resonet' tune ideally suited the medieval cradle-rocking tradition, practised at first by nuns in the Rhineland and later introduced to the services of Vespers and Matins at Christmas in Germany and the Netherlands."

Whereas today for most people Christmas seems to end at New Year's Day, originally the 'Christmas season' spun the period from the first Sunday of Advent to Candlemas, the 40th day after Jesus' birth, when he is presented in the temple and is circumcised. This is reflected by the music which is reckoned among the 'Christmas' repertoire. The Renaissance is a particular fruitful source for programmes of such music. Across Europe motets and masses were written for liturgical performance. The Reformation did not cause a fundamental change. It only partly changed its character: Mary, which was a key figure in traditional liturgical repertoire, took a back seat in the protestant parts of Europe, and in particular in Germany. But although Martin Luther's theology was called 'theology of the Cross', as this was the heart of his doctrines, he still held the Christmas season in high regard, to such an extent, that he wrote and encouraged the writing of songs for children, which told them about the birth of Jesus.

The two discs under review here focus on different parts of the repertoire. The Sixteen offers a programme of pieces from across Europe, mainly from the 16th and early 17th centuries. The latter implies that, although all the pieces are written in the stile antico, there are some stylistic differences between various items in the programme. Its core is the song that was already mentioned above, Resonet in laudibus. It dates from the 14th century, but had a slightly different text at the time, Resonemus laudibus. This is a typical feature of 'popular' music: it is constantly in the process of change and adaptation, both textually and musically. The programme includes pieces for a part of the season. Veni, Emmanuel, here performed in a plainchant version, expresses the longing for Jesus' coming in the world: "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel" (Advent). The actual fact of his birth is celebrated in Hodie Christus natus est (Sweelinck), This day Christ was born (Byrd) and O beatum et sacrosanctum diem (Philips). Then the shepherds are told by the angels that the Saviour is born: Quem vidistis, pastores (Dering, Victoria) and Pastores loquebantur (Guerrero). The next episode is the arrival of the three wise men: Omnes de Saba venient (Handl-Gallus), Videntes stellam magi and Omnes de Saba venient (Lassus) as well as Reges Tharsis (Sheppard). When they don't return to King Herod to tell him where they have found the new-born king, he reacts with the murder of all "innocent children" in Bethlehem: Crudelis Herodes (plainchant) and Vox in Rama (Kirbye). It is curious that this fact is commemorated at December 28, well before Epiphany, which is about the visit of the wise men, whereas historically the murder of the innocent children took place well after their departure.

As I wrote, the programme includes pieces which are stylistically somewhat different. Lassus, for instance, aimed at a closer connection between text and music than many of his contemporaries, in particular those from England. These tendencies further develop towards the end of the century, as the pieces by Sweelinck and Eccard show. Spanish music often has a kind of flavour which distinguishes it from what was written elsewhere. It is the challenge to any vocal ensemble to realise such differences in their performances. In that respect The Sixteen is not entirely convincing. The pieces by Sweelinck and Eccard require a more declamatory approach, although a purely 'baroque' style of singing would certainly be out of place here. Even in Lassus and Handl-Gallus I would like a stronger emphasis of the text than is the case here. The pieces by Victoria and Guerrero are better, but a bit too cool to be entirely satisfying. It does not come as a surprise that the English items come off best. Here The Sixteen feel like a fish in water.

That said, this disc is a nice addition to anyone's collection of Christmas music, especially as the programme includes pieces by composers who are not exactly household names, such as Kirbye, Dering, Handl-Gallus and Eccard.

Another ensemble that focuses on music of the Renaissance period is stile antico. Since its foundation it has recorded several programmes connected to a particular period of the ecclesiastical year, such as Victoria's Tenebrae Responsoria (Passiontide, 2018) and "Passion and Resurrection" (2012). As far as I know, it has released two Christmas discs before: "Puer natus est" (2010) and "A Wondrous Mystery" (2015). Apparently they thought it was time to make another recording with Christmas repertoire. The first disc was entirely devoted to music by English composers, for the second the ensemble turned to German repertoire from around 1600, including music by the above-mentioned Eccard. Their latest disc focuses on Spanish music. The programme opens and closes with motets by two of the main composers of the Spanish 'Golden Age', Cristóbal de Morales and Tomás Luis de Victoria. The third 'giant' of this period, Francisco Guerrero, is also represented with a motet. The remaining part of the programme is notable for two reasons. First, we get a mass by Alonso Lobo, one of the lesser-known masters of the Spanish Renaissance. Second, stile antico includes some pieces which are not liturgical, but rather root in popular culture, with two villancicos and an ensalada.

Alonso Lobo's career was uneventful. 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. In the latter year he asked for permission to return to Seville where he remained for the rest of his life. Today he is best-known for just one piece, his setting of Versa est in luctum, part of the Office of the Dead. The core of this disc is his Missa Dei genitrix Maria, which is based on a motet by his teacher Guerrero. It needs to be said, as Andrew Griffiths correctly does in his liner-notes, that the motet - and therefore the mass - are not strictly related to Christmas, but rather to the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. "[It] nevertheless praises Mary as the 'temple of the Lord, sanctuary of the Holy Spirit' - a reference to her role as bearer of the Christ child. Mary's immaculate nature, free of original sin, is a favourite subject in the Christmas repertoire of the time. And so, whilst it is unlikely that Lobo's mass was composed specifically for Christmas use, it seems eminently appropriate to perform it in this festive setting - an impression which is only heightened by its soaring, lavish sonority".

The villancico is a typical Spanish genre. Its roots are in the Middle Ages, when it was a song with a secular text. During the 16th century, it gradually changed into a spiritual song on a text in the vernacular. Such songs were not fit to be sung during mass, but in the course of time it nevertheless made its entrance into church. Attempts of the ecclesiastical authorities to banish from the church were not successful. In modern performance practice villancicos are mostly executed with the participation of instruments, often including percussion. However, it is perfectly possible to perform them vocally. However, the typical rhythms have to be observed. Mateo Flecha's Ríu ríu chíu is rather well-known, certainly in the United Kingdom, as there it is regular part of the Advent and Christmas performances of the Choir of King's College Cambridge. It goes almost without saying that such performances have little to do with its original character. Almost inevitably, a choral performance is too sophisticated. A small ensemble like stile antico is better suited to do it any justice. However, the performance here does not convince me. I tend to think that one better leaves this kind of repertoire to musicians from the same culture, who have a better feeling for what it takes to bring it to life. That goes even more for Flecha's El Jubilate, which is an ensalada, literally a 'salad' of different elements. Such pieces are specimens of popular culture, even more so than villancicos. It is nicely sung here, but that is not what it is about. Its satyrical character hardly comes off.

It is not surprising that the liturgical music is the best part of this disc. Although the singing of stile antico is a bit too straightforward to my taste and I miss that typical Spanish flavour, I am glad that the mass by Lobo is now available on disc. Morales' motet is about King Herodes, ordering the wise men to tell him where Jesus has been born. Because of elements of a dialogue, it has some quite dramatic traits, which are very well conveyed in this performance. It is a very fine end to a disc which has its flaws, but is still a nice addition to any collection of Christmas music.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

stile antico
The Sixteen

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