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Cristóbal de MORALES (c.1500-1553)
Coph. Vocavi [7.57]; Zai. Candidiores [7.50]; Un. Vigilavit [9.10]; Gaude et laetare [6.11]; Sancta Maria, succure miseris [3.39]; Salve Regina [8.18]; Regina caeli [4.09]; Spem in alium [7.16]; Beati omnes qui timent Sominum [6.39]; Magnificat on the 1st tone [5:03]
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. 2-4 September 2007, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
HYPERION CDA67694 [72.39] 

Experience Classicsonline

Up until the arrival of this disc I had never warmed to the music of Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales. I did not find him especially interesting despite his high reputation both in his own life-time and in various commentaries and books. I have had for many years the Westminster Cathedral Choir’s disc of his mass ‘Queramus cum pastoribus’ and various motets (Hyperion CDA66635 recently reissued on Helios) and recordings of other pieces. Perhaps it was the somewhat unremitting nature of the constantly imitative counterpoint that palled. There were however times when listening to this CD I have been on the verge of tears not only at the sheer beauty of the music but also at the wonderful performances.

This is the fourth CD these fifteen singers have made for Hyperion; their recording of the music of Thomas Crecquillon (CDA67596) has been very well received although it has escaped me thus far. 

I knew that I would like this disc almost from the start when its yellow booklet cover glowed with a Fra Angelico angel which I have recently seen in situ in Detroit. Wisely I think, The Brabant Ensemble concentrate on motets instead of mass settings. Steven Rice says in his very useful booklet notes they have especially homed in on pieces not recorded before or little heard. Thus we have the three opening motets suitable for Holy Week and several in honour of the Virgin. 

I started with track 1, the moving Good Friday Lamentation and instantly marvelled at the rich, warm yet glowing sound of the choir, helped enormously by a realistic recording. What Justin Lowe and Jeremy Summerly, the recording supervisors have managed to do is not only to enable us to get close to the voices so that we hear good, clear diction but also to gain a real sense of the church acoustic (Merton College); on that subject more later. 

Three of the Lamentations have been chosen from the complete set. These may well have been composed for the Sistine chapel where Morales sang for several years. Each begins with a Hebrew letter ‘Heth’, ‘Teth’ ‘Samech’ … and each ends ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum’. Morales mixes simple homophonic textures with searing counterpoint in a very remarkable way – this especially in the opening motet for Good Friday, 'Vocavi amicos meos’. 

Of the Marian motets we have the wonderfully pleading but joyous ‘Sancta Maria, succurre miseris’. Even more joyous - as indeed it should be – there is the six-part ‘Regina Caeli’, as well as the most famous and most moving text of all, the ‘Salve Regina’. This latter work is set ‘in alternatim’ that is with the odd verses as plainchant the rest as polyphony - just as an earlier generation like Obrecht might have done. You might have expected this to have been the pattern for the Magnificat, the longest work on the CD, but unusually, Morales has through-composed it with no plainchant verses. 

Of the non-Marian pieces a bit of a ‘one-off’ is the six-voice ‘Gaude et laetare’ first performed on Sunday 9 March 1539 in Ferrara Cathedral. We know this because it celebrated the award of the Cardinal’s hat to Ippolito II d’Este “Let us rejoice with Ippolito and sing a new song”. It is a rare example in Morales of a ‘public statement’, and is quite exultant in its final effect. 

A sunny atmosphere pervades the happy text of Psalm 127 ‘Beati omnes’ - Blessed are those who fear the Lord’ - so much so that Stephen Rice muses on whether the piece was actually written by Clemens non Papa whose voice is discernable. It also seems likely that the five-part ‘Spem in alium (yes, Tallis also set this text) may be by someone else: a composer who enjoyed false relations and a darker atmosphere. Rice’s suggestion of Nicholas Gombert does not seem right to me and an alternative suggestion of Vincenzo Ruffo is difficult to prove.

I must throw open a niggling and annoying point which on this site we have space to mention, that is the obtrusive letter S or perhaps Stz or ti sounding consonants which rebound around chapel walls in the recording, especially in the ‘Salve Regina’. If the treble is turned right down this does alleviate the problem a little. I wonder if the sound engineers noticed this or is it my equipment or me being too sensitive? Despite that the voices come across as being fresh. The dynamics have been added sensibly, sensitively and have been beautifully graded. In addition the choir’s diction is excellent. All Latin texts are in any event supplied with good quality translations. 

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Brian Wilson



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