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Francisco GUERRERO (1528 - 1599): "Magnificat, Lamentations & Canciones"

El León de Oro
Dir: Marco Antonio García de Paza, Peter Phillipsb

rec: Oct 25 - 27, 2019, Salas (Asturias), Real Monasterio de San Salvador de Cornellana (church)
Hyperion - CDA68347 (© 2021) (60'53")
Liner-notes: E/D/ES; lyrics - translations: E/ES
Cover, track-list & booklet

Antes que comáis a Dios à 4a [5]; Ave virgo sanctissima a 5b [2]; Beatus Achacius oravit a 5b [1]; Hei mihi, Domine a 6b [3]; Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae a 4-6b; Laudate Dominum de caelis a 8b [7]; Los reyes siguen la 'strella à 4a [5]; Magnificat 4. toni a 4-6b; Mi ofensa's grande à 5a [5]; Regina caeli a 8b [4]; Sancta et immaculata a 4b [6]; Sanctíssima María à 4a [5]; Si tus penas no pruevo à 3a [5]

Sources: [1] Sacrae cantiones, vulgo moteta nuncupata, 1555; [2] Liber primus missarum, 1566; [3] Missarum liber secundus, 1582; [4] Liber vesperarum, 1584; [5] Canciones y villanescas espirituales, 1589; [6] Mottecta, liber secundus, 1589; [7] Motecta, 1597

Marie-Luise Werneburg, Mark Williams, discantus; Marnix De Cat, altus;

Francisco Guerrero was one of the two most important composers of religious music in the late renaissance in Spain. The other was Tomás Luis de Victoria, who is much better known. However, Guerrero has faired better as far as performances and recordings are concerned than is often suggested. Peter Phillips, in his liner-notes to the disc under review, states that "[the] current gap between the reputations of Victoria and Guerrero has always seemed to me to be too wide. The problem is not that Victoria is over-praised, but that Guerrero's music is insufficiently known. For many music-lovers, when it comes to Spanish polyphony of the High Renaissance, a little Victoria goes a long way and that is enough." The number of discs in the catalogue suggests otherwise. The present disc included, I have at least fourteen discs in my collection that are entirely devoted to Guerrero. Add to that the anthologies which contain some of his works, and one has to conclude that the state of affairs is not as bad as Phillips - and some others - seem to think.

Guerrero was a voice of his own in the chorus of composers from what is known as the Golden Era (siglo de oro) in Spanish music history. Phillips mentions two features of his personality and oeuvre that make him stand apart from the rest. One is of a non-musical nature: in 1588 Guerrero went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which was unique; no other composer of his time is known to have done that. The other feature is that he wrote secular music, which his contemporary Victoria did not. The present disc aims at offering a survey of his oeuvre, and therefore it includes both sacred works in Latin and spiritual canciones and villanescas in Spanish. Only his masses are not represented, but there are several discs with these parts of his oeuvre.

The motets show quite some variety in texture and scoring. The latter varies from four to eight voices; the latter are written in the cori spezzati technique, known from both Rome and Venice. In Regina caeli this texture is used to achieve a climactic effect, when the two choirs join on the word "Alleluia" which ends each of the four lines. We find a climactic effect of a different kind in the Magnificat 4. toni - an early work that was published in 1563 - and the Incipit lamentatio; which was recently discovered in the Guatemala Cathedral library. Both works open with four voices, but towards the end these are joined by two additional voices, soprano and alto. In Guerrero's oeuvre one finds pieces for lower and higher voices. Beatus Achacius is for alto, two tenors and two basses. In contrast, Sancta et immaculata is for three sopranos and alto. It is probably no coincidence that this is a work about the Virgin Mary: "Holy and untouched virginity, what praises I should offer you I know not". It is an example of a piece for equal voices (voces paribus). Guerrero was certainly not the only one to write for this kind of scorings. In the 1970s a manuscript with music by De Victoria was discovered in Rome, which included ten psalms for equal voices. In modern performances they are often transposed; here the motet is sung in its original scoring.

Stylistically there is also some difference between Guerrero and Victoria. That especially concerns the treatment of the text. His experience with writing secular music may explain why Guerrero's sacred works sometimes include madrigalian passages. A striking example is Hei mihi, Domine, in which the tempo is speeded up and a lively rhythm is used to illustrate the words "Ubi fugiam" - Where should I flee? Laudate Dominum de caelis is a setting of Psalm 150, and - like so many other composers - Guerrero could not resist the temptation to depict the musical instruments mentioned in the text. Obviously he does not go as far as later composers (or even his Dutch contemporary Sweelinck), but the connection between text and music is clearly notable. Beatus Achacius is a piece on the other end of the scale, as it is an example of dense polyphony; Phillips compares it with the oeuvre of Nicolas Gombert.

The disc ends with five specimens of the Cantiones y villanescas espirituales; eighteen pieces from this collection are contrafacta, meaning that they were originally written on a secular text. The liner-notes are rather short on this part of the programme, and don't indicate whether these pieces belong among that category. Los reyes siguen la 'strella is a piece for Epiphany: "The wise men follow the star". Antes que comáis a Dios is a piece for the Blessed Sacrament (al Santísimo [Sacramento]): "Before you eat God in this sacred meal, you should consider in your soul who is truly God and who is truly you". This indicates the moral nature of many such songs, such as Si tus penas no pruevo, on a text by the playwright Lope de Vega: "Were I not to prove your sorrows, O Jesus, I would live sad and sorrowful". This piece is for three voices (SSA), whereas Mi ofensa's grande is for five (SSATB); it is a penitential piece, whose text opens with the words: "My offence is great, so too be my suffering; but ah! may your distaste not torment me". The title of Santíssima María speaks for itself. It documents the importance of the veneration of Mary in 16th-century Spain.

The ensemble El León de Oro was founded in 1997 and has established itself as one of the main vocal ensembles in Spain, whose repertoire is not confined to renaissance polyphony, but also much later music. It also takes part in performances with symphonic orchestras. I must confess that I had never heard it. I like what they bring to the table here: they are undoubtedly very well versed in the music of the renaissance. With its nearly forty voices it is pretty large; I would prefer a smaller ensemble, although I am not sure whether all the voices participate in each piece. Peter Phillips manages to keep things pretty transparent, and the climactic effects come off well. Especially in the spiritual canciones and villanellas a smaller ensemble would be preferable; they may even have been intended for a performance with one voice per part.

These are minor issues, considering the overall quality of this ensemble and the way the pieces selected for this programme are performed. Even if you have several discs with music by Guerrero in your collection, this is a nice disc to have, also because of the inclusion of the Lamentations, which may appear here on disc for the first time (although the booklet does not indicate this). Those who don't know Guerrero's music that well may well be encouraged to look for other discs, having heard this nice and instructive survey.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

El León de Oro

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