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Francisco GUERRERO (1528 - 1599): "The Angel's Voice"

Ensemble La Sestina
Dir: Adriano Giardina

rec: Sept 25 - 27, 2009, Seon, Reformierte Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697824012 (© 2011) (60'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Acaba de matarme a 4, canción [2]; Adiós, verde ribera a 4, canción [2]; Es menester que se açierte a 3, villanesca [2]; Gabriel archangelus a 4, motet [1]; In illo tempore a 4, motet [1]; Missa L'homme armé a 4; O Virgen, quand'os miro a 3, canción [2]; Ojos claros, serenos a 4, canción [2]; ¡Qué buen año! a 3, villanesca [2]; Sancta et immaculata a 4, motet [3]; Vana sperança a 4, canción [2]; Virgo prudentissima a 4, motet [1]

Source: [1] Sacrae cantiones, vulgo moteta nuncupata, 1555; [2] Canciones y villanescas espirituales, 1589; [3] Mottecta, liber secundus, 1589

Isaline Dupraz, Clara Meloni, cantus I; Agathe Boudet, Claire Cuennet, cantus II; Francesca Puddu, Paulin Bündgen, altus; Daniel Issa, Raphaël Favre, tenor

Francisco Guerrero is generally considered one of the greatest Spanish composers of the 16th century. The other two are Cristóbal de Morales and Tomás Luis de Victoria. Guerrero is the only one who wrote a considerable number of secular pieces, whereas Victoria wrote none at all and only a handful of pieces from Moráles' pen are known. Guerrero composed 61 pieces which were printed as Canciones y Villanescas espirituales in 1589. The complete collection was recorded by Musica Ficta and the Ensemble Fontegara, under the directiom of Raúl Mallavibarrena (Enchiriadis). Seven such pieces have been selected by Adriano Giardina for this disc which is devoted to Guerrero.

There is something special about this disc. Every piece is set for high voices, as one may gather from the list of singers in the header of this review. This kind of music is not often performed as it doesn't fit well with the line-up of modern vocal ensembles. But 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 10 psalms for equal voices (voces paribus). These are sometimes transposed in order to be performed by a conventional vocal ensemble, like La Colombina. In this recording all music is performed as it was written.

Music for voices in exactly the same range as these psalms by De Victoria is not very common; more music is written for "two or three neighbouring vocal registers", as Adriano Giardina writes in his liner-notes. There could be several reasons for this, like the requirements of a specific ensemble or musical education. But the scoring of a vocal piece can also be motivated by symbolism, as is suggested by the title of this disc, "The Angel's Voice". "Thus music for high voices is used to represent the Archangel Gabriel (in the motet Gabriel archangelus), while a piece set for low voices expresses melancholy or fulfills the rhetorical requirements of gravitas".

Guerrero's oeuvre is large, and comprises 19 masses, about 150 further sacred pieces of various genres and some secular works. Many of the canciones and villanescas were originally conceived as secular works, but when they were printed most secular texts had been replaced by spiritual texts. It is not always easy to tell the spiritual and secular pieces apart, though. Of the seven pieces from the above-mentioned collection of 1589 only two seem to me really secular: Vana sperança and Adíos, verde ribera. At first sight Es menestrer que se açierte also looks like a secular piece, but the words "transgress not in partaking this food" has to be interpreted as a reference to the Eucharist. As far as I can tell these pieces are performed with one voice per part, which seems historically correct. The performances are good but probably a bit too restrained.

In comparison the sacred pieces, performed with the full ensemble, come off better. The main work is the Missa L'homme armé, using one of the most famous secular songs of the late Middle Ages and the renaissance, and frequently used by composers as cantus firmus for a mass. It is Guerrero's only mass for high voices and is based on the Missa L'homme armé by Cristóbal de Morales. But Guerrero was also inspired by the Missa L'homme armé sexti toni by Josquin. In his liner-notes Giardina explains the parallels between the two masses. Passages in the mass are singled out either by reducing the number of parts or by setting them homophonically. Unfortunately the sections of the mass are divided over the disc and interspersed by other pieces, including the canciones and villanescas.

The sound of the ensemble is really very different from what we usually hear, because of the lack of low voices. It lends the performances a kind of lightness and weightlessness which is emphasized by the style of singing of the ensemble. The result is a great transparency and a good delivery. All in all this disc offers an interesting addition to what is already available. Guerrero's music is not badly represented on disc, but the number of recordings which are entirely devoted to his music is limited. That makes this disc all the more welcome.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Ensemble La Sestina

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