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Cristóbal de Morales (c1500-1553)
Lamentations - Coph. Vocavi (1530s?) [7:57]
Lamentations - Zai. Candidiores (1530s?) [7:50]
Lamentations - Nun. Vigilavit (1530s?) [9:10]
Gaude et lætare, Ferrariensis civitas (1539) [6:11]
Sancta Maria, succurre miseris [3:39]
Salve regina [8:18]
Regina cæli a 6 (pub. 1565)[4:09]
Spem in alium [7:16]
Beati omnes qui timent Dominum [6:39]
Magnificat primi toni (first complete recording) [11:04]
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford, 2-4 September 2007. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German, texts and translations.
HYPERION CDA67694 [72:39]
Experience Classicsonline

A parcel from Hyperion has just brought me three earlier Brabant Ensemble recordings, together with my review copies of this new CD and the most recent Gothic Voices reissue (CDH55295– The Study of Love). The Gothic Voices are a well-known quantity – I have reviewed most of their recent reissues on Hyperion’s budget Helios label and those which I haven’t received as review copies I have bought – but I have somehow missed the earlier Brabant Ensemble recordings, though my Musicweb colleagues have praised them all and I note that their Gombert recording (CDA67614) has reached the final stage of voting for the 2008 Gramophone Awards.
 
My one reservation about that Gothic Voices recording was that I wouldn’t encourage a newcomer to early music to start there: the music of Machaut and his contemporaries can sound quite alien to those not used to the idiom. Move on a century or so from Machaut to the music of Morales on this new CD and the music becomes much more amenable to the modern listener. Add to that the quality of these performances, directed by Stephen Rice who, like Christopher Page, combines his work as a don with directing the ensemble, and the excellence of the recording and you have a winning combination.
 
The three opening works are settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, employed in the pre-Vatican 2 Latin rite as lessons at Matins on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The first item is the third lesson for Good Friday, the second and third are the first and second lessons respectively for Holy Saturday in the lectionary employed in Morales’ time. Fortunately all the texts and translations are given – even if you have a copy of the Tridentine Missal or of the Holy Week manual with the restored Latin rite of 1955, you won’t find these readings, since the texts of Lamentations employed there were considerably abridged from what had been in use in Morales’ time.
 
Later composers would produce very affective settings of this music, usually performed in anticipation on the previous afternoon or evening in the ceremony of Tenebræ. Iberian music of this period can, of course, be very dramatic, but Morales’ settings are very much quieter, in what Grove aptly calls a sober homophonic style – less dramatic and affective than, say, those of Charpentier: this is the music of quiet contemplation. Though sometimes complex, the music never sounds complicated: more like the settings of Charpentier’s contemporary François Couperin. For the Charpentier settings of Tenebræ, see my recent review, and for the more reflective settings of Couperin, see my follow-up review.
 
Morales sets the letters of the Hebrew alphabet which open each lesson, but not with the elaborate melismata which were later to become fashionable. The Brabant Ensemble resist the temptation to sex up this music: their studied and sensitive singing is just right, rising to a modest climax in places on track 3. Stephen Rice, director of the Ensemble, in his excellent notes which accompany this recording, describes these settings as harrowing and, without forcing or exaggeration, the performance manages to be exactly that. I have described Couperin’s simpler settings as sometimes more arresting and memorable than the more dramatic Charpentier and the same is true of these Morales works when they are as well performed as this.
 
Track 4 brings a more extrovert work, Gaude et lætare, urging Ferrara to rejoice at the appointment of Ippolito d’Este as a cardinal, but even here the exuberance of the music and of the performance is limited – perhaps Morales found it difficult to toady up too much to the powerful d’Este family. Or perhaps he was all too mindful of the failure of most cardinals to observe the derivation of their title from the Latin word for the hinges on which the church should hang. Just over a century earlier, the poet Langland thought it best not to offer an opinion of those “that cardinals ben called and closynge yates/There crist is in kyngdom, to close and to shette”, but his refusal to criticise these creaking hinges speaks volumes:
 
Ac of þe Cardinals at court þat kau3te of þat name
And power presumed in hem a Pope to make
To han the power that Peter hadde – impugnen I nelle –
For in loue and lettrure þe eleccion bilongeþ;
Forþi I kan & kan nau3t of court speke moore.
[But of the cardinals at the papal court, who have grabbed that name and presumed to have the power to make a Pope, to have the power that Peter had, I won’t criticise them, for with love and learning the papal election should be made; therefore I know, but cannot speak any more about the court. Piers Plowman, B Prologue, 107-111]
 
Matters had certainly not improved by the time that Morales was in Rome in the late 1530s: look at Julius exclusus a cœlis, Julius shut out of heaven, a work which Erasmus always denied he had written – but probably did – in which St Peter fails to recognise the dead Pope Julius II as his successor when he appears in armour and papal crown at the gate of Heaven. (Collected Works of Erasmus, 27.168-97, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974-).
 
Whatever the reason, the singing of The Brabant Ensemble in this piece exactly matches my view of the piece as a work of moderated enthusiasm. The next piece, Sancta Maria, succurre miseris, returns to the mood of thoughtful penitence of the opening Lamentations. The academic interest of this work lies in the link with an earlier setting by Verdelot of the same words and with subsequent settings by Morales’ student Guerrero and by Victoria, each showing awareness of its immediate predecessor. It is, however, of much more than academic interest when it is as well performed as it is here.
 
Sancta Maria (track 6) and the following Salve Regina, the antiphon to Mary at the end of Compline from Trinity to Advent, are Marian prayers of quiet penitence. The following track, Regina cæli, the antiphon after Compline in Eastertide, though a setting of joyful words – rejoice, Virgin Mary; he whom you were worthy to bear has risen as he predicted – is again a work of moderate rejoicing. You won’t find either showy breast-beating or excessive elation in the music of Morales on this CD or in these excellent performances, but it is all quietly satisfying. It’s often said, with justice, that Guerrero, despite his name (meaning ‘warrior’) is the most placid of renaissance composers; perhaps that was one of the traits that he learned from his teacher Morales.
 
Spem in alium (track 8) sets the words now indelibly associated with Tallis’s 40-part work. The five-part Morales setting is far less elaborate but well worth hearing, as also is Beati omnes (tr.9). Again, the singing in both works is all that could be wished for.
 
The recording is as ideal as the performances – Merton Chapel offering a much better acoustic than Christ Church Cathedral next door. (Nimbus have exiled the Christ Church choristers to Dorchester for their recordings, several miles down the road; couldn’t they have borrowed the use of Merton?)
 
Everything comes together exactly right, too, in the final and longest work on the CD, the hitherto unrecorded four-part Magnificat primi toni. Again, there’s no over-ambitious or showy writing here, but that’s not to say that it’s run of the mill. Just compare the excerpt offered on the Hyperion website with the music of the four early Christ Church composers, Pygott, Mason, Ashwell and Aston, whose roughly contemporary music I recently reviewed on Nimbus and Metronome – see review – and you’ll see what I mean: where they offer good, workmanlike material, Morales cuts his music from better cloth and tailors it better, but the result isn’t showy. It’s the musical equivalent of the understated magnificence of Titian’s painting of Isabella of Portugal, reproduced on the cover of the Brabant Ensemble’s recording of the music of Crequillon (CDA67596). Check out that painting in images on the web and in art books, and you’ll find the red of the dress exaggerated in some reproductions and looking washed out in others. The Brabant Ensemble restore us the picture as seen in the Prado, as it were – neither over-bright nor faded.
 
The only reservation that I have about recommending this recording concerns the wealth of polyphonic music in excellent performances available from Hyperion in their lower-priced Helios series, at less than half the price of this new CD. I do hail from the North of England, after all; over 40 years of living in London haven’t impaired my love of a bargain. You won’t find any of the Brabant Ensemble recordings on that budget label – they’re too recent – but you will be able to build up an excellent collection at low cost. Morales’ Christmas Mass Queramus cum pastoribus features on the Helios label (CDH55276, Westminster Cathedral Choir), as does the music of Morales’ student Guerrero, which I recently recommended (Missa Sancta et immaculata, CDH55313, also Westminster Cathedral Choir – see review).
 
It’s sometimes said that Westminster Cathedral Choir have a special affinity with Spanish and Italian polyphony; be that as it may, their singing in this music is excellent. You may prefer their use of boys’ voices – and boys free of the ‘hoot’ that sometimes afflicts the trebles of Anglican choirs – but that would be the only reason to reject these Brabant Ensemble recordings. I can’t wait to catch up with their earlier CDs.
 
Looking around for possible rivals to this recording, I noted that we don’t seem to have reviewed an excellent Chandos recording by Nordic Voices (CHSA5050) including music by Morales and contemporaries, issued last year, so good that I must give its details more fully than usual:
 
Reges terræ: Music from the Time of Charles V
Pierre de Manchicourt (c.1510 –1564) Reges terræ, Laudate Dominum, O Virgo virginum, Agnus Dei (from Missa ‘Reges terræ’)
Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500 –1553) Regina cæli, Exaltata est sancta Dei Genitrix
Jacobus Clemens ‘non Papa’ (c.1510/15 –1555/56) O magnum mysterium
Francisco Guerrero (1528 –1599) Hei mihi, Domine
Nicolas Gombert (c.1495 – c. 1560) Ego sum qui sum
 
This excellent recording is, in fact, better regarded as an additional recommendation rather than as a rival to the four Brabant Ensemble recordings, since there is very little overlap of material. Nordic Voices, a small ensemble of up to six – the personnel varies slightly between the items – sing, if anything, even more enticingly than the Brabant performers but trying to choose between performances this good is invidious. Nordic Voices do tend towards fastish tempi – compare their 3:15 for Guerrero’s Hei mihi with the Westminster Choristers’ 4:40 on CDH55313. For the most part, they don’t sound rushed; just occasionally I thought that their enthusiasm got the better of them and they had to work to pull the performance back together, but that’s far better than safe mediocrity. (Not that either the Brabant or Westminster singers are guilty of that.) The repertoire is more varied than on the single-composer Hyperion CDs, and the recording is superb, even in ordinary stereo.
 
Is there a fly in this ointment that would have prevented me from giving this CD thumbs-up or even making it Recording of the Month if it had come to me as review disc in the normal order of things? Well, yes, look at the recording time of 48:52 – the Hyperion CD is exactly half as long again. I’ve complained about similar timings on Hyperion Helios reissues, but some of them were made at a time when LP and cassette releases were still taking place alongside CDs; surely there is no excuse for such a short time today on a full-price release. Another, more minor grumble: Chandos are capable of producing some very attractive covers, but this one is plain dull by comparison with the Hyperion covers and with those of the Gimell recording listed below.
 
If you’re looking for more music by Morales, in addition to the Helios CD which I’ve mentioned, there is a Gimell recording of the Mass Si bona suscepimus (CDGIM033) to which Gary Dalkin awarded the highest 5-star accolade (see review); see also a brief but equally appreciative review by Peter Woolf. Thanks to a CD-quality download from the Gimell website, I was able to listen to this recording. I hate to distinguish between performances and recordings of such high quality but, if forced to choose only one of these Morales recordings, it would be the Gimell by a very fine margin.
 
As the two recordings are not going head to head, however, in terms of overlapping repertoire – and even the Crequillon work which concludes the Gimell CD, Andreas Christi familus, does not duplicate the Brabant Ensemble’s Crequillon recording; if deliberate, a wise decision on Hyperion’s part – you ought to try to purchase both. Whether you download the Gimell – preferably in the lossless format, which is still less expensive than the CD – or buy it on disc, you will also have access to as attractive and informative a booklet as on the new Hyperion. My Northern parsimony just baulks at one detail – the Gimell playing time of 56:01 is somewhat better than Chandos’s 48:52 on Nordic Voices’ Reges terræ, but it is still short by comparison with Hyperion’s 72:39.
 
I am very pleased to have extended my acquaintance with Morales – and with some of his contemporaries on CHSA5050 – on these three excellent recordings.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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