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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Giovanni Francesco ANERIO (c.1567–1630)
Missa Pro Defunctis (publ. 1614) [39.32]
Felice ANERIO (c.1560–1614)

Vidi Speciosam [4.21]
Ad te levavi [5.11]
Christe redemptor omnium [8.12]
Salve Regina III [4.37]
Christus Factus est [2.36]
Magnificat Quinti toni [7.15]
Westminster Cathedral Choir/James O’Donnell
rec. Westminster Cathedral, 13-16 February 1990
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55213 [72.23]

 

Anerio’s motet, Christus Factus est, is one of those magical pieces which crop up in most choirs’ repertories. But this disc by Westminster Cathedral Choir, reissued by Hyperion on their Helios label, makes us realise that there were not one but two Anerios, brothers who composed a fine array of music beyond the well known motet. And the motet itself, included on this disc, does not occur in any printed sources before the 19th century; which, of course, raises the interesting possibility that Anerio’s Christus Factus est might not even be by Anerio at all.

Felice Anerio wrote the motet, but the centrepiece of this disc is the fine requiem mass by his younger brother Giovanni Francesco Anerio. Giovanni Francesco was a singer and maestro di capella in a variety of Roman churches. His requiem mass was published in 1614. He was ordained in 1616; being a musician, his first mass (at the Gesu) was not surprisingly a very grand musical occasion. In 1624 he left Rome to serve King Sigismund III of Poland; Anerio died in 1630 on the way back from Rome. Sigismund had employed Luca Marenzio in the 1590s and the trip had ruined Marenzio’s health.

The brothers Anerio were born into a musical Roman family; their father was a trombone player. They belonged to the generation of composers who lived under the shadow of Palestrina. But their lifetime saw a large expansion of musical activity in Rome and though writing within Palestrina’s tradition, many of the younger composers produced music of great interest. Giovanni Francesco Anerio produced a number of masses besides his requiem. Interestingly his career stresses the Palestrina connection as he produced a four-voiced version of Palestrina’s six-part Missa Papae Marcelli - a mass which was also arranged for eight-voices for the Sistine Chapel choir by Francesco Soriano.

Anerio’s requiem belongs to a period when polyphonic settings of the requiem mass were becoming more common. Unlike Palestrina, who set only the Introit, Kyrie, Offertorium, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, Anerio set a substantial part of the mass; most notably he includes a setting of the Dies Irae. In this movement, Anerio alternates the plainchant with polyphonic movements. This use of plainchant is reflected in the Introit, where each section is introduced by plainchant.

Whilst Anerio seems to have been at some pains to match the music to the words in the more dramatic sections of the Dies Irae, he seems also to have been concerned over the audibility of the words. Many of the choral sections of the Dies Irae mix homophony with discreet polyphony, thus ensuring maximum impact for the words.

The performance is exemplary. The intense and plangent tones of the Westminster trebles are particularly suited to the long lines of this music. The whole reading is notably expressive and makes you understand that the choir not only performs this repertoire in concert and on CD, but also sings it in the liturgy on a daily basis. It is this commitment to the repertoire that is one of Westminster’s great strengths. Anyone wanting a version of Anerio’s requiem or those wishing to explore Roman music post-Palestrina cannot go far wrong with this release.

Of course, the power and intensity of the performance comes at some cost. Repeated listening makes you realise that the trebles, understandably, do not have quite the total control that female sopranos might have. And there are occasional hints of smudginess in the lower three parts. But I think that these are small prices to pay for such a fine, committed, passionate performance; one that is very distant from the cool perfection of some English adult choirs in this repertoire.

The choir also perform six of Felice Anerio’s motets. Felice was Giovanni Francesco’s elder brother. He was a choirboy at St. Peter’s under Palestrina and continued there when his voice broke. He spent time as maestro di capella at various Roman churches until, in 1594, he was appointed to St. Peter’s in succession to Palestrina. He was ordained a priest in 1607. His large-scale works are very much in the Palestrina mould, but in his smaller pieces with basso-continuo he explored more modern techniques. That his output is largely unedited and generally unavailable means that a full assessment of Anerio’s position as a composer must wait.

Most of the motets included on the disc are for double choir, a form very popular in Rome at the time. The Magnificat Quinti Toni was written for the Sistine Chapel with the verses being divided between the two choirs; Anerio uses both choirs to emphasise important passages using antiphonal interchanges or eight-part polyphony. It is a substantial work, lasting over seven minutes, and though Anerio quotes the 5th Tone on which the Magnificat is based the work is through-composed.

For his setting of words from the Song of Songs, Vidi speciosam, Anerio brings something of his skill as a madrigalist. His expressive writing comes close to that of Vittoria and the motet has in the past been mis-attributed to the Spanish composer. Ad te levavi, which sets words from Psalm 122 (123), is also notable for the care with which Anerio sets the words. As with the Magnificat, these two works are most effectively written for double choir.

Christe Redemptor is Anerio in more traditional mode, alternating plainchant and polyphony in this setting of the traditional Christmas hymn. Christus Factus est remains simply beautiful, whoever wrote it. The choir’s control is notable in the wonderful suspensions that make the piece so distinctive.

Anerio’s Salve Regina setting again uses a double choir, but this time a high choir and a low choir rather than balanced pair of ensembles which was more common in Roman music. The results are masterly.

Not all the solo voices used on the disc are perfect, but the choir’s performance more than makes up for this. The engineers have succeeded well in capturing the acoustic of Westminster Cathedral. Each piece has a lovely acoustic aura about it, without every obscuring the text or the music. The recording is an object lesson in how to present polyphony in a resonant acoustic.

This is a fascinating disc of music in fine performances. Hyperion are to be congratulated on re-issuing it. Music by the Anerio brothers is still pretty rare on disc. In performances as committed and as passionate as their works make pretty riveting listening.

Robert Hugill

 

 



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