Program: #21-29 Air Date: Jul 12, 2021
This week, Peter Phillips returns with his latest project: a collaboration with the Spanish ensemble El León de Oro, with works by Morales, Guerrero, and the rarely-heard Dominique Phinot.
I. Amarae Morti. Hyperion CD CDA68279
We are accustomed to hearing Peter Phillips direct a small ensemble, both on disc and in concert. The Tallis Scholars usually perform with two singers to a part, though their ranks can be swelled on occasion if the scoring of a particular piece demands it. Here, he is working with a choir of 33 - 9/8/6/8, with two more singers listed as alto/tenor – though it may be the case that not all the singers are involved in every piece, according to the forces required. I think I’m right in saying that most of the pieces included here are ones which he has not already recorded with the Tallis Scholars. At the risk of making a fairly obvious point, the collective sound here produced by El Léon de Oro is richer and fuller than one hears from the smaller number of voices generally assembled for a Tallis Scholars recording. It’s no small achievement on the part of the Spanish singers – and by Peter Phillips as their conductor – that the larger ensemble does not mean an overweight or unclear sound. The same clarity of texture that characterises Phillips’ work with the Tallis Scholars is in evidence here too.
There’s quite a lot of solemn, even sorrowful music here. Peter Phillips has chosen three works that set passages from the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. The programme opens with a setting by the Franco-Flemish composer, Dominique Phinot whose homosexual practices brought about his execution in around 1556. His setting, which is divided into six sections (all separately tracked) is quite remarkable – Peter Phillips describes it as “clearly experimental”. It’s scored for two SATB choirs though it’s only in the first and last sections that the two-choir division is used – and to telling effect. Elsewhere, the third section is reserved for the four upper parts, soprano and alto, while the following section, also in four parts, is restricted to tenors and basses. In the fifth section all eight parts come together in sumptuous music. This piece is a wonderful discovery and El Léon de Oro sing it marvellously.
The other Lamentation settings are by Lassus and the Portuguese, Cardoso. Both are very fine settings. The Lassus, for SATTB, is particularly notable for the way he responds musically to the sentiments expressed in the text, a prime example being the dramatic music at the words ‘in die irae furoris sui’ (On the day of his fierce wrath).
There are two settings of the Lenten Compline antiphon Media vita, the last line of which, ‘amaræ morti ne tradas nos’ (May you not deliver us to the bitterness of death), provides the title for this programme. The Lassus setting, which is in six parts (SAATBarB), is beautiful, spacious and solemn. In his notes, Peter Phillips draws attention to a detail of the scoring in this work where the sopranos have a little figure, repeated seven times, during the course of which their line drops through an octave. This turns out to be such a simple device, comprising just three notes, but it’s unusual and effective and though it doesn’t stand out obtrusively in the textures, once your attention has been drawn to it the device is ear-catching (track 8, from 1:16). The other setting of this text is by Nicolas Gombert who, like Phinot, was punished for his homosexuality. In his case, though, he escaped death and was instead sentenced to serve time as a galley slave, rowing in the imperial navy of Charles V. Apparently, he continued to compose while serving his sentence – one wonders how – and Peter Phillips speculates that his six-part setting might have been composed in that period. Certainly, the music, which uses the same voices as Lassus, is very intense in nature and if it was indeed composed while he was being punished in the galleys than it’s a particularly significant achievement.
It's good – and wise – programming to intersperse some more joyful music into this programme and the three settings of the Eastertide Marian antiphon, Regina caeli fulfil that function admirably. The short, exultant seven-part setting (SSAATTB) by Lassus is a fine piece. The present performance creates a buzzing texture and the choir sings the repeated word ‘Alleluia’ with real joy. Victoria’s setting of the same text is a superb composition. This is for two choirs (SSABar SATB) and in a short span of time Victoria delights us with an array of inventive choral textures. It’s jubilant music to which El Léon de Oro do full justice; they put a real spring into the music’s step.
There’s only one piece on the programme which isn’t either by an Iberian composer or one from the Franco-Flemish tradition. Palestrina’s Laudate pueri is a masterly setting for two SATB choirs of Psalm 112. It’s an amazing feat of composition and the present performance is both exuberant and highly polished. It’s a marvellous way to conclude this programme.
Lovers of Renaissance polyphony will find that this programme is full of magnificent music from start to finish. The singing of El Léon de Oro is consistently accomplished and full of conviction. I haven’t encountered them before but I’m seriously impressed by what I’ve heard and I hope that Hyperion will record them again. Of course, they could scarcely have more authoritative direction in repertoire such as this than from Peter Phillips.
From the online research I was able to do it seems that the Iglesia de Santiago el Mayor, Sariego dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Exterior photographs indicate that it’s not too large a building and the session photographs in the booklet suggest a fairly intimate space. It seems to have been an ideal choice of venue and Hyperion’s recording, engineered by David Rowell and produced by Adrian Peacock, is well-nigh ideal. The singers are clearly heard yet with just the right – and not excessive – aura of the church’s acoustic round the voices. The notes are by Peter Phillips, so collectors of Gimell recordings will not be surprised to learn that they are excellent.
This is a very rewarding disc and I look forward to hearing more from El Léon de Oro before too long.
Incipit oratio Jeremiae prophetae [11:56]
Media vita [6:03]
Lamentatio tertia, prima diei [7:31]
Regina caeli [5:00]
Media vita [5:58]
Lamentatio Feria quinta in Coena Domini – Lectio II [5:58]
Regina caeli [4:26]
Magnificat primi toni [9:21]
Regina caeli [4:45]
Laudate pueri [7:17]
II. Francisco Guerrero Hyperion CD CDA68347
Magnificat, Lamentations & Canciones
El Leon de Oro/Peter Philips & Marco Antonio García de Paz
rec. 25-27 October 2019, Iglesia del Real Monasterio de Salvador de Cornellana, Salas, Spain
HYPERION CDA68347 [60:53]
From MusicWeb International: How I would have loved to have met Francisco Guerrero, not only for his calm, poised and yet often passionate music, but for what one reads about him and can glean from his own words when he travelled, bravely for his time, to the Holy Land in 1588 from his home in Seville where he was ‘maestro de capilla’. I remember recording many years ago a reading, by Robert Hardy I think, of extracts from Guerrero’s book El viage de Hierusalem. More recently, I found some extracts in a library. The sections on his experience with pirates and his incarceration are especially riveting.
The disc is also noteworthy because of Peter Philips’s obvious excitement at directing a Spanish choir in this music; the group, nearly forty of them, are pictured in the booklet. Even if they have all been involved in the recording, the sound is never heavy. The venue was a monastery in Asturias built in the 11th Century. Philips conducts the entire disc except the five Canciones y villanescas espirtuales. Those are, I suppose, sacred madrigals, or more correctly secular music tailored to sacred texts; the choir’s director Marco Antonio García de Paz takes over with superb stylistic understanding.
In fairness, the chosen acoustic is not as it would have been in the vastness of Seville cathedral, which was completed by 1507, before Guerrero was born. But the recording team of Dave Rowell and Gabriel Crouch have given us a sound which is not too close and offers a sense of space around the voices. It must be admitted that some of the text is consequently lost but it might have been even less distinct in the cathedral. When I visited it for a service during the Christmas season of 2018, the choir seemed to be coming from another planet.
Very often, a disc of Guerrero’s music will include a Mass; this one deliberately offers a more rounded view of a composer known to be versatile and varied. We begin with a Magnificat sung ‘alternatum’ with plainchant. This highlights Guerrero’s ability to write elegant and singable lines which sound simple and natural. It is an early work, as is the justly famed Ave virgo sanctissima (first published 1566 and reprinted in 1597). The top two parts are perfectly canonic at the unison, and the lower ones are closely imitative. The effect is of subtle but great beauty. Another motet to the virgin is Sancta et immaculate, written touchingly for just upper voices, three sopranos and an alto.
Guerrero had been a pupil of Morales. The closely knit, imitative style cultivated by his generation (which also included Gombert) can be clearly detected in Beatus Achacius oravit, another early work in honour of a rather obscure saint.
Suitable for Passiontide would be the moving motet Hei mihi, Domine, and of course the succinct Lamentations, which just takes five verses from Chapter 1 of that book. Each verse of every piece is given its own track on the disc. That is on the whole very helpful but just be careful when you set up the programming.
Contrary in mood are the two closing motets, the eight-part Regina Caeli, a gentle hymn to the Queen of Heaven and the psalm setting Laudate Dominum, a joyous motet for two choirs used in a ‘cori spezzati’ style, with the second choir interjecting ‘laudate eum’ at the phrase ends.
The last five pieces, on twelve tracks, are from the aforementioned Canciones y villanescas espirituales published in Venice in 1589. The Spanish texts are madrigalian in musical language. The five verses of Los reyes siguen la ‘strella are in a gently compound time (‘The wise men follow the star, the star follows the Lord’), in a largely, and unusually, homophonic piece. The wonderfully expressive Sanctissima Maria is set for SSAT, and the only one selected here, which includes the bass voice, is the more solemn Mi Ofensa’s grande. Antes que comáis a Dios (Before you eat the Lord in this sacred meal) is mostly in a lilting triple time, sung here very affectionately. Si tus penas no pruevo, just for sopranos and altos, is in three parts and could easily be a madrigal (some by Guerrero do survive). Some wonderfully cool Spanish courtyard is evoked in my imagination.
Peter Philips in his notes writes: ‘An album of Guerrero, sung by Spaniards, which not only shows off his best sacred music, but also puts some of his secular writing in the frame, has long been overdue.’ That alone is a reason to acquire this disc. Moreover, the choir’s sound is perfectly fine, the intonation is reliable, the balance good, without any annoying vibrato. You get a strong passion and commitment to the music.
Magnificat quarti toni [8:13]
Ave virgo sanctissima [3:38]
Hei mihi, Domine [3:48]
Beatus Achacius oravit [7:12]
Sancta et immaculate [4:04]
Regina caeli a 8 [4:16]
Laudate Dominum in caelis [3:23]
Los reyes siguen la ‘strella (from Canciones y villanescas espirituales) [3:26]
Antes que comáis a Dios [2:57]
Sanctissima Maria [2:38]
Si tus penas no pruevo [3:12]
Mi ofensa’s grande [4:58]
Dominique PHINOT (c1510 – c1556), Orlande de LASSUS (1530/32 – 1594), Nicolas GOMBERT (c1495 – c1560), Manuel CARDOSO (1566 – 1650), Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548 – 1611), Cristóbal de MORALES (c1500 – 1553), Giovanni da PALESTRINA (1525/6 – 1594), Francisco GUERRERO (1526-1599)
Hyperion CD CDA68279, Hyperion CD CDA68347