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CD reviews

"Journeys to the New World"

The Queen's Six

rec: March 27 - 29, 2019, Ascot, UK, Ascot Priory
Signum Classics - SIGCD626 (© 2020) (66'23")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Miguel Mateo DE DALLO Y LANA (c1650-1705): Laudate Dominum a 6; Hernando FRANCO (1532-1585): Christus factus est a 4 (attr); Salve Regina a 5; Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Beatus Achacius a 5 [1]; Trahe me post te a 5 [1]; Alonso LOBO (1555-1617): O quam suavis est a 6; Versa est in luctum a 6; Francisco LÓPEZ CAPILLAS (1614-1674): In horrore visionis a 6; Tantum ergo a 6; Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): O sacrum convivium a 5; Regina caeli laetare a 6; Juan Gutierrez DE PADILLA (c1590-1664): Circumdederunt me a 6; Versa est in luctum a 5; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (c1548-1611): O quam gloriosum a 4 [2]; Vidi speciosam a 6 [2]

Sources: [1] Francisco Guerrero, Sacrae cantiones, vulgo moteta nuncupata, 1555; [2] Tomás Luis de Victoria, Motecta, 1572

Daniel Brittain, Tim Carleston, alto; Nicholas Madden, Dominic Bland, tenor; Andrew Thompson, Simon Whiteley, bass

Throughout history authorities of Church and state have been aware of the power of music. It is no coincidence that the mythological figure of Orpheus exerted such a strong attraction that he became the subject of many cantatas and operas, and that composers or singers were compared with him. It also explains why the mighty were so much interested in engaging the best composers and performing musicians of their time to serve at their court, in their town or in their churches and cathedrals. Music was also an important instrument in the mission of the Christian church - and after the Reformation in particular the Catholic Church - to spread the faith in other parts of the world. The present disc is one of many which focuses on sacred music in the New World.

That is to say: only a part of the music included in the programme, has a specific connection to the Spanish colonies. The track-list comprises pieces by eight different composers. Four of them never were in the New World, three were born in Spain, but settled in the Americas where they made a musical career in the church, and one was born over there. As far as the former four are concerned, Bruno Turner, in his liner-notes, states that they never went to the New World, but "their music did". However, he does not specifically indicate that their compositions included here, have been found in sources in the New World. The booklet also omits a list of sources, where the different pieces have been found. The least one can say, is that their works have laid the foundation of what was performed and composed in the New World. The nice thing of this disc is that it includes several pieces that are not very well-known, and that even goes for composers whose oeuvre is pretty well represented on disc. That is the case, for instance, with Beatus Achacius by Francisco Guerrero; even the title was completely new to me.

Several Spanish composers have been in Italy, and especially in the oeuvre of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the influence of what was written there, in particular by Palestrina, manifests itself. And Morales, one of the first composers of the 'Golden Age', was influenced by the Franco-Flemish school. Even so, there is something special about music of the Iberian peninsula and what was written in the New World. The pieces by Spanish composers have often a special flavour, a kind of emotional power that - at least in my experience - is often absent in, for instance, Palestrina's oeuvre. Victoria is probably the best example: his music for Holy Week and his compositions for the Office of the Dead never fail to make a lasting impression. It is nice that he is represented here with the exuberant motet O quam gloriosum, a setting of the antiphon for All Saints. It shows a different side of the composer, who does not fail to explore the uplifting tenor of the text: "O how glorious is the kingdom in which all the saints rejoice with Christ".

The piece by Guerrero I referred to above, is about a saint most music lovers will never have heard of and whose name I have never encountered in any piece of music. The motet has the indication that it was intended for the feast of St Achacius on 22 June. Turner writes: "The saint was said to have been martyred along with 10,000 companions at Mount Ararat, no less. In Guerrero's time the Feast was in the Seville liturgical books. It disappeared in the 1570s, excised by Roman reforms. It remained in the Martyrologium of 1949, and was abolished as myth in 1969." The other text set by Guerrero is much better known. However, Trahe me post te is an example of pre-baroque text illustration. The upper voice follows the second at a distance of one and a half bars and a third above it, illustrating the opening phrase: "Draw me after you, Virgin Mary, we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments". As was customary in pieces about the Virgin Mary, the text includes images taken from the Song of Songs.

The veneration of Mary was important in the Catholic Church, and especially in Spain. Several pieces bear witness to that. The programme opens with Morales' Regina caeli laetare, a setting of an antiphon for the time between Easter and Whitsunday. Each of the four lines ends with an extended 'Alleluia'. The ensuing Salve Regina is from the pen of Hernando Franco, who settled in Guatemala and then in Mexico, where he took the position of maestro de capilla at the Cathedral. In this setting, which has an alternatim structure, the last line includes an addition to the text. Vidi speciosam is Victoria's setting of a responsory of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. It is in two sections, each ending with the same text, taking the function of a refrain: "And as on a spring day, she was surrounded by roses and lily-of-the-valley". Two groups of three voices each are juxtaposed.

Versa est in luctum, Circumdederunt me and In horrore visionis are all funeral pieces. The first is heard here twice, in settings by Alonso Lobo, who worked as maestro de capilla in Toledo and then in Seville. Especially Lobo's setting has a strong emotional flavour, comparable with the best pieces by Victoria. The second is by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, born in Málaga, who from 1622 until his death worked at the cathedral of Puebla de los Angeles in Mexico, first as vice-maestro and then as maestro de capilla. In horrore visionis is a little-known text from the book of Job: "Amidst thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake". It has the intensity one expects from a piece from the Office of the Dead. Francisco López Capillas was educated as a player of the bassoon, learned to play the organ and became assistant to Gutiérrez de Padilla in Puebla de los Angeles. Later he moved to Mexico City in 1654 to become maestro de capilla at the cathedral.

The next chapter in the programme is devoted to Corpus Christi and Holy Week respectively. Tantum ergo is again by López Capillas and is a setting of the last stanza of the hymn Pange lingua. The second voice has the cantus firmus. O quam suavis - "O how sweet is thy spirit, Lord" - by Alonso Lobo is a setting of an antiphon for Corpus Christi. Christus factus est was sung at the end of the Tenebrae during Holy Week and was also the gradual at mass on Maundy Thursday. It is attributed to Hernando Franco in one of the manuscript copies at Mexico City Cathedral. Bruno Turner assumes that this attribution is incorrect, and that it may be a piece from the pen of Manuel de Sumaya, a Mexican-born composer and organist, who for most of his career acted as organist and maestro de capilla at Mexico Cathedral, and worked in the same capacity at Valle de Oaxaca during the last seventeen years of his life.

The disc ends with a setting of Psalm 116 (117), Laudate Dominum by Miguel Mateo de Dallo y Lana, who worked first in Seville, and then moved to Mexico, where in 1688 he became maestro de capilla at Pueblo Cathedral. The six voices are more or less juxtaposed, giving the impression of being split into two choirs.

It brings to an end a quite fascinating disc, which mixes some more or less familiar pieces with works that are seldom performed. It is also my first acquaintance with this ensemble, which comprises six singers from the choir of St George's Chapel. Together they make a very fine ensemble, which gives here a particularly good account of itself. I am impressed by what they bring about here. There is an excellent balance within the ensemble, in which the upper voices don't dominate, as it sometimes the case in groups of this kind of line-up. The singers achieve an optimum transparency, partly due to the avoidance of an obtrusive vibrato. The plainchant verses in Hernando Franco's Salve Regina receive a nicely robust performance. I also like the increase in intensity of the second refrain in Victoria's Vidi speciosam in comparison with the first.

This is not the ensemble's first disc. Previously it recorded a collection of folk-songs, which indicates that it has a wide-ranging repertoire. I hope that they will continue their exploration of renaissance polyphony, and focus on lesser-known repertoire. The disc reviewed here is one lovers of polyphony should definitely not miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

The Queen's Six

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