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Francisco GUERRERO (1528–1599)
Tota pulchra es Maria a 6 (1570) [5.11]
Ave Virgo sanctissima a 5 (1566) [3.27]
Regina caeli a 8 (1584) [4.08]
Surge Propera amica mea (Instrumental version) (1555) [4.53]
Missa Surge Propera (1582) [24.45]
In exitu Israel (1582) [15.55]
Sydney Chamber Choir
Orchestra of the Renaissance/Michael Noone
rec. 14-17 June 1998, St. Scholastica’s Chapel, Glebe, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 476 9236 [59.01]

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Francisco Guerrero was the Spanish Golden Age composer who stayed at home. Morales - with whom Guerrero studied in 1545 or 1546 - spent ten years serving in the Papal choir and Victoria spent much of his working life in Rome. But Guerrero seems to have been able to resist the Papal City’s siren call; he paid visits but never worked there. At the age of sixty he even visited Jerusalem and wrote a best-selling account of his travels.

Guerrero started young; Morales recommended the 18 year old Guerrero for the post of Maestro di Capilla at Jaen Cathedral. But he left after a few years, unable to cope with the daily grind of extra-musical tasks, including looking after the singing boys. By the age of 23 he was assistant to Pedro Fernandez at Seville Cathedral, finally took over from Fernandez in 1574 and there he stayed.

His first book of motets was produced in Seville in 1555. His first book of Magnificats, dedicated to King Philip II, was published in Louvain in 1563. Then in the 1580s his reputation was enhanced by five major collections of his music published in Rome, Paris, Madrid and Venice.

He wrote a small number of secular works but is best known nowadays for his nineteen masses, first published in two volumes; volume 1 in Paris in 1566 and volume 2 in Rome in 1582. Guerrero travelled to Rome to oversee the typesetting of volume 2 and it was on this journey that he made contact with Victoria.

The six voice Missa Surge propera was chosen by Guerrero to head the collection. It is based on a motet by an as yet unidentified composer; Guerrero’s own Surge propera motet does not form the basis for the mass and in fact dates from 25 years earlier. The motet was included in his first book of motets.

This 1998 recording includes both the mass and the motet (this latter in an instrumental version) as well as a selection of Guerrero’s other motets - Tota Pulchra est (published in Venice in 1570), Regina Coeli (published in 1584), an eight-voiced setting which draws on the traditional plainsong melody, Ave Virgo sanctissima (first published in 1566 and republished in 1570 and 1597), one of Guerrero’s most popular motets, and In exitu Israel.

The twenty voice Sydney Chamber Choir are a versatile group whose repertoire ranges from 12th century to contemporary. They adapt themselves very well to the needs of performing music from the Spanish Baroque. It helps of course that Michael Noone has made something of a speciality of the music of this era.

The choir makes a warm, attractive sound but, as recorded on this disc, comes over as an ensemble of individual voices rather than a smooth choral group. This is of course no bad thing; styles of performance have changed since the Tallis Scholars first started recording this type of repertoire. Nowadays there are many groups who sing baroque polyphony in small groups with a feel of individual voices singing with great intensity and that approach works very well.

Unfortunately, for me, the sound that the Sydney Chamber Choir makes does not work here. Perhaps they were recorded slightly too closely allowing some rather individual voices to dominate. It does not help that a number of the singers, though singing musically, have a tendency to place a bulge on each note to the detriment of the sense of line.

It was this sense of line that I felt was lacking. Even a piece as copper-bottomed as Ave Virgo Sanctissima fails to make you tingle. What we are left with is some very creditable performances of some extremely interesting music. You may be less disturbed by the choral sound than I and if you are keen to acquire this Guerrero mass then I can recommend the disc.

Some of the motets and sections of the mass are accompanied by members of the Orchestra of the Renaissance. This is a standard baroque practice and makes for interesting listening, but I did have the guilty thought that the instrumentalists gave the choir an excuse for singing with reduced intensity. My only reservation is in the lovely motet In exitu Israel. This alternates plainchant with polyphonic sections. Noone chooses to have the polyphonic sections doubled with instruments and leaves the plainchant unaccompanied. The chant, however, is taken at a rather slow pace. The overall result feels slightly over-blown. I would have been happier with a fully unaccompanied performance, with faster plainchant and polyphony characterised by a quiet intensity which is lacking from this rather technicolour production.

This is a disc where the fascinating repertoire never quite lives up to its promise. Many people may be perfectly happy with it but I would advise anyone interested in Guerrero’s Missa Surge Propera to investigate the recent Tallis Scholars’ CD of the mass.

Robert Hugill


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