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"The Golden Age - Siglo de Oro"

The King's Singers
rec: May 30 - June 2, 2007, Toddington, Gloucestershire, St Andrew's Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD119 (© 2008) (64'31")

JOÃO IV (1604-1656): Crux fidelis; Alonso LOBO (1555-1617): Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae; Libera me; Versa est in luctum; Diogo Dias MELGAS (1638-1700): In ieiunio et fletu; Pia et dolorosa mater; Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): Missa Mille regretz: Kyrie; Juan Gutiérrez DE PADILLA (c1590-1664): Versa est in luctum; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Versa est in luctum; Sebastian DE VIVANCO (c1550-1622): Versa est in luctum

David Hurley, Robin Tyson, alto; Paul Phoenix, tenor; Philip Lawson, Christopher Gabbitas, baritone; Stephen Connolly, bass; with Keith McGowan, bajón

It seems composers write their best music to gloomy and sombre texts. This disc gives ample evidence of that as its core is 'Versa est in luctum': "My harp is turned to mourning and my music into the voice of those that weep. Spare me, O Lord, for my days are as nothing". It is from the book of Job and has become a responsory in the Office of the Dead. While preparing this recording the ensemble found out that there are many compositions to choose from. They have chosen four settings of which Tomás Luis de Victoria's is the best-known.

The programme starts with a piece by João IV, King of Portugal. He was a great patron of the arts and an avid collector of music. His huge music library was completely destroyed during the earthquake which hit Lisbon in 1755. The King was also a composer himself, but only two of his motets have survived. Crux fidelis is merely attributed to him; its authenticity is apparently not established. It is a very emotional piece in which the first section is followed by three in plainchant; after every section the first is repeated. The emotional climax is the last line of this section: "Sweet wood to hold sweet nails and bear sweet weight".

Next follows the Kyrie from the Missa Mille regretz, based on a chanson attributed to Josquin Desprez. Morales was the first Spanish composer who was internationally renowned.

Then we hear the first of the four versions of Versa est in luctum, this time by De Victoria. Later follow versions by Sebastián de Vivanco, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and Alonso Lobo. Vivanco was born in Avila, like Victoria, and seems to have been close to his colleague. He acted as maestro de capilla in Avila and later at Salamanca cathedral. He was also appointed professor at the university there.
Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla was born in Málaga and died in Puebla in Mexico. It is not known when he has moved to the New World, but his presence in Puebla is established in 1622. He was active as instrument maker; he sold his instruments throughout Latin America, as far as Guatemala. Many of his works are for 8 voices in two choirs, but his setting of Versa est in luctum is for five voices.
Lobo was assistant to Guerrero at Seville cathedral, where he became maestro de capilla in 1604, after acting in the same capacity at Toledo cathedral. Apart from the motet Versa est in luctum we also hear his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. He pays much attention to the Hebrew letters which precede the various verses. He has set them to long melismatic formulas which contrast which the much more declamatory setting of the text itself. The disc ends with another responsory from the Office of the Dead, Libera me. This is an alternatim composition, although the text is not divided in verses. Often it is just a couple of words which are set to polyphony, which are then followed by somewhat longer phrases in plainchant.

The latest composer on this disc is Diogo Dias Melgas. Although by his dates of birth and death he should be considered a baroque composer, but Spanish music - in particular religious music - was rather conservative, and he writes in the stile antico of the past, which was often used in religious music in the 17th century, not only in Spain but also in Italy. What is remarkable about his music is his harmonic language which is very unusual and which was one of the reasons The King's Singers have chosen his music for this disc.

The programme is in many ways the result of concerts which The King's Singers have given. "Beginning at the back of the church with Crux fidelis and slowly moving eastwards as the piece unfolds has proved to be a magical way to start". The other works are also mostly chosen because they proved to be first-rate compositions during live performances of the ensemble. It is obvious from this recording that The King's Singers have put much effort into this programme and are quite experienced in the music performed here. I have been sceptical about The King's Singers' forays into the world of polyphony, and sometimes found their interpretations tending to be a little slick, lacking the depth the music requires. But here I am very impressed by The King's Singers performances here. They are certainly able to reveal the emotional value of this repertoire. Their use of dynamics is well judged and is used to great effect, for instance in the various settings of Versa est in luctum or in João IV's Crux fidelis, to emphasize the contrasts in the text. The collaboration with Keith McGowan on the bajón, a kind of dulcian, works also well, giving some colour to the lowest part. It is rather strange that he is not mentioned in the list of performers, only in the programme notes.

The booklet offers notes by The King's Consort on the concept of the programme as well as Ivan Moody on the music. All lyrics are given with an English translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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