musica Dei donum
"Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance"
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral
Andrew van der Beek, bass dulciana;
Andrew Lawrence-King, harp;
James O'Donnell, organa
Dir: David Hill
rec: Jan 23 - 25, June 28 & July 2 - 3, 1985, Westminster Cathedral
Hyperion/Helios - CDH55430 (R) (© 2014) (61'28")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599):
Ave virgo sanctissima a 5 ;
O altitudo divitiarum a 8a ;
O Domine Jesu Christe a 4 ;
O sacrum convivium a 6a ;
Regina caeli a 8a ;
Surge propera amica mea a 6a ;
Alonso LOBO (1555-1617):
Ave Maria a 8a ;
O quam suavis est, Domine a 6 ;
Versa est in luctum a 6 ;
Sebastián DE VIVANCO (c1551-1621):
Magnificat 8. toni a 8a 
Francisco Guerrero,  Liber primus missarum, 1566;
 Motteta, 1570;
 Liber vesperarum, 1584;
 Motecta, 1597;
 Alonso Lobo, Liber primus missarum, 1602;
 Sebastián de Vivanco, Liber Magnificarum, 1607
In 1986 Hyperion released a disc entitled 'Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance'. At that time this repertoire was little known. That situation has changed, partly thanks to the activities of Spanish ensembles, but certainly also thanks to the many recordings by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. It has established a tradition of performing and recording music from the Iberian peninsula written in the 16th and early 17th centuries when Spain was experiencing a golden era (siglo d'oro). On the present disc, a reissue under the Helios label, the choir is directed by David Hill. His successor James O'Donnell continued the exploration of this repertoire, and the present director, Martin Baker, has followed in his footsteps.
These recordings are not in the first place an attempt to revive music from the past, but the masses and motets by Spanish and Portuguese composers are very much part of the liturgical repertoire of this choir. That needs to be taken into account if one is to assess the performances. The Choir of Westminster Cathedral - comprising boys and men - is one of the best of its kind. It is notable for its strong and bright sound, often labelled 'continental', which is partly due to the participation of boys in the alto section rather than only male altos. This sound seems to suit the repertoire from a musical point of view but from a historical angle it is probably not in line with what was common at the time the music was written. That goes especially for the size of the choir; in the booklet to this disc the names of the singers are not listed, but from other recordings I know that especially the number of sopranos and altos is quite large.
Let us have a look at the composers and their works recorded here. They all belong to the later generations of Spanish composers and two of them, Alonso Lobo and Sebastian de Vivanco, are probably not that well known. Francisco Guerrero is not in that category; he was one of the greatest composers of the Spanish renaissance. He was born in Sevilla and spent most of his life there. Remarkable in his career is his journey to the Holy Land which he described in a book which was published in 1592. He was set to travel to the Holy Land again in 1599, but shortly before his departure fell victim to the plague which hit Seville that year. Between 1555 and 1597 a large number of his compositions were published across Europe, not only in Spain but also in the southern Netherlands, in Rome and in Venice. His oeuvre includes masses, motets, Magnificat settings and villancicos in the vernacular.
The programme includes six of Guerrero's motets. Two are for eight voices in two choirs. In O altitudo divitiarum Guerrero splits the voices into choirs of different pitch: a high vs a low choir. In the other eight-part motet, Regina caeli, the two choirs have the same scoring: SATB. The 6-part O sacrum convivium is dominated by the lower parts - the altos and basses are split - but that doesn't come off fully because of the strong presence of the upper voices in this choir. Ave virgo sanctissima was one of Guerrero's most famous motets, his "greatest 'hit'", as Bruno Turner writes in the liner-notes; that is no different in our time. It receives an excellent performance here which brings out the strong expression and the unmistakeable Spanish flavour. O Domine Jesu Christe is more introverted which can be explained from the text referring to Jesus' suffering at the cross "having drunk of gall and vinegar".
Among Guerrero's pupils was Alonso Lobo. From 1591 to 1593 he was assistant to Guerrero at Seville cathedral, where he became maestro de capilla in 1604, after acting in the same capacity at Toledo cathedral in between. He published only one collection of music: a book with six masses and seven motets. It found wide dissemination, partly due to the composer's activities in promoting his works as he sent copies of the book to a number of cathedrals. Some copies have been preserved as far away as Latin America. The fact that some of his works have been found in manuscripts from the 18th century attests to the great appreciation of his oeuvre. His motet Versa est in luctum is by far his best-known work and has been recorded several times. Ave Maria is for eight voices in two choirs and includes a canon. O quam suavis is a Communion motet.
Vivanco was born in Avila, where he became maestro de capilla in 1587 after having worked in the same position in Lérida and Segovia, and from 1602 to 1621 at Salamanca cathedral. He was also appointed professor at the university there. Three collections of music were published in his lifetime. The Magnificat 8. toni is for eight voices, but not divided into two choirs. It is an alternatim composition, meaning that the verses are alternately sung in polyphony and in plainchant.
Four of the pieces on the programme are performed a cappella; in the other six the choir is supported by harp, bass dulcian and organ. The use of instruments in Spanish polyphony of the golden era is documented, but there is no unanimity as to when instruments were used, and exactly which and how many. It seems unlikely that these questions can be solved once and for all. Here the instrumental support is rather modest: the instruments are sometimes hardly audible, due to the size of the choir.
Although this is a British choir one could probably call it untypical as it produces a sound all its own, as I have noted at the start of this review. In the booklet Bruno Turner writes that "the motets of Lobo and his contemporaries, Esquivel and Vivanco, are beginning to be recognized as peculiarly Spanish". However, the music of Victoria may often be mentioned in the same breath as Palestrina's - and there is certainly a strong similarity between them - it is my experience that even his oeuvre has a certain emotional flavour which is lacking in Palestrina. It is one of the achievements of this choir that it is able to bring that out, here as well as in its recordings of Victoria's music. Despite my reservations in regard to the choir's size I greatly admire the singing of this music. The shaping of the lines, the choice of tempi and the differentiated dynamic shading all contribute to this disc making a lasting impression.
If you have missed this recording when it was first released this is your chance to make up for it.
Johan van Veen (© 2016)
Choir of Westminster Cathedral