The Marian Consort, continued

Program: #19-13   Air Date: Mar 28, 2019

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The excellent English ensemble gives us music of Palestrina and music of lamentation from Renaissance Portugal.

NOTE: All of the releases on this program feature the Marian Consort directed by Rory McCleery. For more information:

I. Pater Peccavi. Delphian CD DCD34205.

Biblical texts of lamentation were embraced by composers of the late Renaissance for their artistic and expressive potential. But in Portugal – a kingdom without a king, its people governed by a foreign power – such settings gave life, as well, to a rich expression of covert political commentary.

Rory McCleery’s ongoing interest in this field of polyphony bears fruit for the first time in a ground-breaking programme. Many of these Portuguese composers are known, if at all, for a very few pieces. Once again, McCleery and his Consort make a clarion call for music that it deserves, and with their advocacy should now receive far wider recognition.

From This latest offering from the Marian Consort and Rory McCleery collects devotional settings by late-Renaissance Portuguese polyphonists using texts that dwell on loss and longing as a framework and for potentially covert ambitions for political freedom from the Spanish Habsburgs who ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640. Included is the first recording of Duarte Lobo’s Missa Veni Domine interspersed with Motets by Estêvão de Brito, Aires Fernandez and Estêvão Lopes Morago. Manuel Cardoso’s renowned Lamentations for Maundy Thursday opens proceedings.

From the outset The Marian Consort declares itself masters of this repertoire, in terms of sumptuous tone and innate understanding of style, superbly recorded too, the one-to-a-part ensemble beautifully captured. Cardoso’s Lamentations has competition from Westminster Cathedral Choir’s similarly-paced account (1991) and Bo Holten’s Ars Nova slower version (1992) but the jewel-like timbre from The Marian Consort bears repeated listening. Much of this stems from McCleery’s handpicked singers who blend perfectly with an awareness of phrase-shapes that lifts the notes off the page with wonderful naturalness.

Such sensitivity brings rewards to the near-ceaseless flow of polyphony that is Lobo’s Missa Veni Domine, its invention based on Palestrina’s Motet of the same name. Such is the buoyancy of the singing that the predominantly six-part textures never fail to hold the attention or lose momentum. The ‘Gloria’ is especially noteworthy for its subtle metrical shifts and spicy harmonies and the text-heavy ‘Credo’ is kept alive by McCleery’s ideal pacing. A more forthright manner characterises the ‘Osanna’, while a gentler approach informs the ‘Benedictus’ and the brief ‘Agnus Dei’ offers consolation for “the sins of the world.”

Other notable choices include Morago’s plaintive De profundis (grabbing attention early on with its false relation), the confessional tone of Lobo’s Pater peccavi and the overlapping phrases of Fernandez’s Circumdederunt me. The pièce de résistance is Brito’s soaring Heu Domine, brilliantly achieved in its luminosity and sudden diminuendoheightening its pathos.

Anyone, whether familiar or unfamiliar with these pieces or this vocal group, will be transfixed by the beauty of construction and performance. Lenten music has never sounded so gorgeous. The booklet includes a note from McCleery as well as texts and translations.

Cardoso: Lamentations for Maundy Thursday
+Morago: De profundis; Commissa mea; Versa est in luctum; Emendemus in melius; Oculi mei semper ad Dominum
+Lobo: Missa Veni Domine; Pater peccavi; Audivi vocem
+Fernandez: Circumdederunt me
+Brito: Heu Domine
+Magalhaes: Commissa me
Interview with Rory McCleery by David Smith of Presto Classical:
The Iberian school of polyphony is generally regarded as being more heart-on-sleeve, more full of pathos, than some other schools of the time. Do you think this is accurate, or is it something of a stereotype?

I think that certainly plays into it. It’s a truism to say that there is indeed a very distinct Iberian style, which is very different from the polyphony of England or Italy – and of course both England and Italy’s are distinctive in their own way too. But it has to do with time as well as with geography: within a period of about fifty years music has become different. That’s something that we easily forget, particularly when we’re talking about Portugal, and to a lesser extent Spain too – these are composers who are writing at the very end of the Renaissance. For instance, if we compare the music of Gesualdo, writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century (or even Monteverdi) to those who were writing in the middle of the sixteenth century like Clemens non Papa, they’re very different stylistically.

But there’s certainly something about the style which does seem a little more emotionally direct. Writing towards the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, they must have been at least tangentially aware of developments in harmony in continental Europe and the way that it was being used to colour secular texts in particular. That finds expression in Spain and Portugal in sacred music; because there’s not so much of that madrigal tradition in those countries, it finds its way into the setting of sacred texts instead.

How much do you think this period of political oppression in Portugal, which finds expression in these works, was key in shaping that Iberian style? Might its music be less striking if the politics had fallen out otherwise?

Absolutely. It would be very easy to make sweeping generalisations, but I think some of these works are rooted very specifically in that period from 1580 to 1640 when the Spanish Habsburgs are ruling in Portugal, in particular the music of Duarte Lobo, because he was so well-known to the future John IV of Portugal. They were evidently quite close friends, so it’s clear that works like the Missa Veni Domine were intended in part for his attention. The fact that the allusions are so pointed allows us to infer that quite confidently.

With some of the other works, it’s a little harder; some of them were written at the fringes of that time-period, and the texts are more generally lachrymose. It’s difficult to say whether a composer deliberately choosing to set a sad text was necessarily a political decision, or whether it was simply that these texts provided more scope for harmonic and emotional nuance. But some pieces, particularly the Lobo Mass, are absolutely keyed into this moment in Portuguese history. One can quite easily imagine composers making political statements in a quiet way through their textual choices. It’s very easy for us to say this in hindsight because we’ve got overt examples like Byrd, so it’s tempting to conclude that everyone was doing it - but I do think there’s definitely evidence that some of these composers were thinking in those political terms and making very pointed choices about their texts and the way that they chose to set them.

Within Iberia, do you think there are discernible sub-styles – perhaps affected by the relative duration and extent of Moorish influence in Portugal as distinct from, say, Andalusia or Catalonia?I think I’d ascribe it much more to chronology than geography. Portugal is probably more isolated than Spain, and that’s apparent from the way composers are still writing in this relatively old-fashioned style well into the seventeenth century. Even someone who we think of as a mainstay of the Portuguese school like Duarte Lobo – he’s publishing his motets in 1621, which (to put it in very simplistic terms) is of course eleven years after Monteverdi has ‘invented’ the Baroque! Obviously the history of music is much more fluid than those wallcharts with lines dividing up the periods, but there’s a clear shift going on in continental Europe and to some extent in Spain. I think there’s more crossover between Spain and continental Europe than with Portugal; particularly after this period of rule by the Spanish Habsburgs, Portugal tends to be musically somewhat isolationist, because they’ve got their new identity and they want to shape that without being influenced by other things, places and people. That’s not the whole story, of course; there are a lot of composers who flit between the two places, but I think it’s a matter of chronology more than anything else.

There was considerable musical interchange between Madrid and Venice during this time, leading to a rather cosmopolitan style with features influenced by Palestrina – did something similar occur with Portugal, or was it a more insular and self-contained musical world?

I think it was, yes. Of course there’s contact between Spain and Portugal, with plenty of composers from each country spending their careers in the other – but perhaps there’s a connection to this period of rule from outside by the Spanish Habsburgs, and then the feeling of rediscovering the Portuguese national identity when John IV takes the throne. John IV himself was an avid supporter and performer of music – there’s a setting of Crux fidelis that’s been attributed to him, and he had an extensive music library which unfortunately was destroyed in an earthquake about 100 years after he’d amassed it. Although a lot of the pieces don’t survive we do have the catalogues, so we know what was in there.

There’s also an awful lot of music by Portuguese composers that stayed within Portugal; Lobo is an exception, with his Mass and motets composed in 1621, of which a copy even ended up in the Bodleian Library in Oxford! Likewise, Portuguese composers themselves didn’t travel as much as their Spanish counterparts; if we think of Morales and Guerrero, figureheads of the Spanish Renaissance, both of them spent time in Rome (and Guerrero indeed went on to the Holy Land) and they published in Rome and Paris. They were truly European, continental and cosmopolitan in a way that perhaps not all Portuguese composers were – although Lobo certainly had music published in Belgium.

Hindsight allows us to draw connections between liturgical texts and the secular troubles of the times, and to find musical allusions subtly emphasising the subversive connotations of a given passage. But do you think these coded messages would have been picked up on by listeners at the time?

It comes down to the question of for whom the music is written and performed, and which parts of it are for which parts of those audiences. So often we find musicians writing music serving a dual or triple function, in that they’re writing music that is ostensibly for the Rite of the Catholic Church but also has these little traits that are for the edification or amusement of the performers – that tradition goes all the way back to Josquin, de la Rue, and Ockeghem.

And I think something like that is going on here; it wasn’t intended that everyone, or even most people, would get the allusions. If you knew the Palestrina motet Veni, Domine on which the Mass is based, you would have picked up on it. But I don’t think the average person attending Mass would necessarily have said “Oh, I get it; it’s by Palestrina”. For them, the music was for their edification and to encourage them towards the glory of God. The musicians, though, would have been more likely to recognise the piece and cotton on to what Lobo was doing. If you’re making a political point like that, it’s probably better if not everyone understands it! But we can speculate that it may have been aimed specifically at John of Braganza (the future John IV), because as a music-lover and a noted collector of music, he would almost certainly have known this Palestrina work. Lobo may even have introduced him to it, and then when he wrote the Mass John would surely have seen what he was driving at and concluded that his sympathies lay with the rightful Portuguese monarchy.

Nearly half of the tracks on this album are world-premiere recordings. How did you first encounter these works, and why do you think they have fallen out of the repertoire?

Ready access to scores was the main obstacle. With the exception of Lobo, a lot of this music doesn’t survive in very many places, and most of it is only preserved in Portugal, which means that the dissemination of it was limited, and it didn’t form part of the early-music revival in the twentieth century. We know that some of these societies, such as the Society of Ancient Music (not to be confused with today’s Academy of Ancient Music), who were a group of gentlemen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who met in London to sing through old music, were performing Lobo’s works. But for most of the others, the lack of dissemination of their music made a big difference.

My own interest in this repertoire was instilled in me through my undergraduate studies; I was fortunate enough to take a course on Iberian polyphony with Owen Rees, who is a fantastic scholar and also a passionate advocate of this repertoire as a performer. While there are quite a few pieces on this recording that have been recorded for the first time (including the Missa Veni Domine), works by those composers have been recorded elsewhere – so it was a matter of investigating what else they had written, delving through catalogues and in some cases transcribing works myself either from facsimiles of the originals, copies of the original partbooks, or prints.

One of the things I love about working in this field is that you can make world-premiere recordings of music that is five hundred years old; there is such a wealth of great repertoire from this period which I think we can all agree is deserving of wider dissemination, and merits being better known by listeners and indeed by performers.

II. In Sorrow’s Footsteps (Delphian CD DCD34215).

From This album has been recorded to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of The Marian Consort. To further mark that occasion the group commissioned Gabriel Jackson’s setting of the Stabat mater, which here receives its first recording. Indeed, at the time of the recording the work had not been performed in public; its premiere took place in March 2018.

I’ve been waiting for this disc with more than usual impatience. I’m an admirer both of the work of The Marian Consort and the music of Gabriel Jackson and I had arranged to attend the first day of the recording sessions, at which the new work was set down, in order to write a session report for MusicWeb International. Unfortunately, a serious family emergency the night before meant I had to cancel my plans. So, instead of hearing the Jackson piece taking shape as a recording I’ve been obliged to wait for the CD.

It has been worth the wait. Jackson’s setting of the great medieval poem is a very fine one indeed. As I’ve come to expect with this composer, he writes most imaginatively and sympathetically for the voices – ten singers are used here - and at every turn his music seems to complement and enhance the words marvellously. So, for instance, the very opening is searing and tragic. The music then becomes quieter, but still very intense. In the first part of the poem the three-line stanzas comment on the anguish of Mary by the cross of Jesus and quite a lot of the music expresses, as do the words, pity for Christ’s mother. At ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’ the emphasis of the poem switches from commentary and from now on until the end the words address Mary in prayer It seems to me that Jackson’s music, very fine up to this point, now becomes even more expressive; the harmonies are richer and the writing is more complex.

When he reaches the stanza beginning ‘Fac me tecum pie flere’ Jackson introduces an extended and very expressive solo soprano line, here sung superbly by Rachel Ambrose Evans. This solo line at one and the same time seems to break free from the ensemble yet still remains a part of it. The soloist has this leading role while four stanzas are sung. After a much more arresting passage (‘Fac me plagis vulnerari’) the music becomes hushed and prayerful at ‘Christe, cum sit hinc exire’ and we hear the solo soprano again. The last two words of the poem, ‘Paradisi gloria’ are set to a wonderful, short harmonic progression that takes the work to a consoling conclusion in F major.

I’ve listened several times now to Gabriel Jackson’s Stabat mater and I’m in no doubt that it’s an eloquent and musically very fine setting of the poem. The Marian Consort sing this challenging piece with complete assurance and great commitment. It’s hard to imagine that the work could have had a better first recording. I hope I’ll get a chance to hear it live before too long.

As you’ll see from the contents of this programme, Rory McCleery and The Marian Consort have sought to reflect in this anniversary programme what have been the two-fold focus of their work to date: Renaissance consort music and compositions from our own time. Thus, it is very logical indeed to include Palestrina’s setting of the Stabat mater as well. There are some differences between the versions of the text that the two composers set and it’s very helpful to have these differences clearly laid out in the booklet. Palestrina’s piece is set for two four-part choirs and on this recording the two choirs are nicely, though not excessively, separated. McCleery and his singers make a wonderful job of the piece; every phrase is ideally expressive and beautifully calibrated. In his notes Andrew Mellor points out the direct style of Palestrina’s music in this piece and that’s certainly brought out in this performance.

We also hear ‘old’ and ‘new’ when it comes to the settings of the Miserere. The setting by Allegri is famous, of course; indeed, I fear it’s become rather over-exposed. However, there’s always room for a fine account of it such as this present one. Tenor Guy Cutting is an excellent cantor. The distant Choir 2 is ideally placed in the recording: they’re suitably distant but the sound of their voices registers clearly and with a pleasing sense of ambience around them. My guess is that for the recording Choir 1 was placed on the sanctuary steps and Choir 2 was right at the other end of the Merton College Chapel, underneath the organ loft. Engineer Paul Baxter has recorded the performance in an ideal way. The soprano in Choir 2 (Charlotte Ashley) negotiates the famous top Cs with bell-like clarity but adds no additional embellishments to her line, as have been heard on one or two recent recordings by other ensembles: I’m rather glad of that.

James MacMillan’s 2009 setting of the same text is informed by Allegri’s setting and complements it very imaginatively though it is in no sense a pastiche. MacMillan pays overt homage to Allegri by introducing (at the words ‘Auditui meo dabis gaudium’) the same Tonus Pelegrinus plainchant that his predecessor had used. This grows very naturally out of MacMillan’s original music and he avoids a “slavish” quotation by presenting the chant in two-part harmony, alternately sung by male and female voices. Later, MacMillan returns to the chant but this time four soloists sing it, each in turn, and their respective solo lines finish with an upward-soaring embellishment. The last verse of the psalm brings all the voices together, the music beautifully harmonised. MacMillan’s setting is a terrific piece. The music is at one and the same time firmly rooted in the past yet also resolutely of the present day. It receives an outstanding performance from The Marian Consort.

The programme is completed by the inclusion of two short pieces by Palestrina. Both are exquisite and are performed with great poise and sensitivity. Given the Consort’s name, it seems to me to be entirely appropriate that one of these pieces is the Marian anthem, Ave Maria.

Judging by previous albums that I’ve heard, the composition of the Consort appears to flex according to the needs of the repertoire. For this programme up to10 singers are used - four sopranos and two each of altos, tenors and basses – though some of the pieces call for a smaller ensemble. I think that Rory McCleery conducts throughout, singing only in the Palestrina Ave Maria. Throughout the programme the singing is absolutely flawless yet you never get the impression that what you are hearing involves beauty of sound for its own sake. Whether in the Renaissance music or the two contemporary pieces these gifted musicians sing not just with poise and great accomplishment but also with sensitivity; they communicate the music expertly.

As I indicated when discussing the Allegri piece, Paul Baxter has recorded the Consort in an exemplary fashion. The sound has ideal clarity but it also has just the right degree of warmth: clarity has not been achieved by making a recording that is in any way antiseptic. The recording is satisfyingly realistic. The sympathetic acoustic of Merton College Chapel has been used to excellent effect to enhance very naturally the singers’ sound.

The icing on the cake, as it were, is an excellent set of notes by Andrew Mellor.

I’ve heard and enjoyed several of the Marian Consort’s previous releases but I’m inclined to think that this outstanding disc is the best thing they’ve yet done. As such, it’s a splendid celebration of ten years of music-making. Just as importantly, it launches their second decade with panache.

John Quinn

Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962)
Stabat Mater (2017) [18:55]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c 1525-1594)
Super flumina Babylonis [4:15]
Stabat Mater [9:57]
Ave Maria [4:28]
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652
Miserere [13:26]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b 1959)
Miserere (2009) [12:13]

Composer Info

Manuel Cardoso, Aires Fernandez, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Estêvão de Brito, Duarte Lobo, Magalhaes, Gabriel Jackson(b 1962), Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c 1525-1594), Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652), Sir James MACMILLAN (b 1959),