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Francisco GUERRERO (1528 - 1599)
Pange lingua gloriosi [8.31]
Missa de la Batalla escoutez (1582) [29.18]
In exitu Israel (1584) [13.58]
Duo Seraphim clamabant (1589) [4.19]
Regina caeli laetare (1584) [3.34]
Magnificat octavi toni (1584) [7.27]
Conditor alme siderum (1584) [4.13]
Westminster Cathedral Choir
Her Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts/James O’Donnell
rec. 23-25 June 1998, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Experience Classicsonline

This recording was originally issued by Hyperion in 1999, the year of Guerrero’s 400th anniversary and now, a decade later, they have re-issued it on their mid-price Helios label. For this recording the choir of Westminster Cathedral and conductor James O’Donnell were joined by Her Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts. The intention was to reproduce the sound-world of Seville Cathedral when Guerrero worked there. Guerrero spent most of his working career at Seville Cathedral. We are lucky enough to have surviving documentation from the period. This details exactly how the authorities expected the instrumentalists to participate in the liturgical music. From this it seems that the instrumentalists took quite an active part in the polyphonic music, both supporting and replacing voices in the choirs. At times the music was played completely instrumentally. This is reflected on this disc where the sackbuts and cornets not only accompany the singers but in some cases replace them entirely.

The centrepiece of the disc is Guerrero’s Missa De La Batalla escoutez. This is a parody mass based on Janequin’s popular chanson La guerre -also known as La bataille de Marignan. The strange title of the mass combines the Spanish phrase for the battle with the first French word (escoutez) in Janequin’s chanson.

Anyone expecting a dramatic battle mass, full of fanfares and such-like will be disappointed. This is a traditional, rather sober, polyphonic mass in Guerrero’s finest style. During the mass, the instruments are used to accompany the singers, adding colour and support. The bass line receives a lot of colour from the bajon (dulcian), an instrument frequently used in Spanish music of this period to strengthen low bass lines. Paul McCreesh uses one in his recording of the Victoria Requiem, thus enabling his choir to sing the piece at low pitch suitable for having counter-tenors on the top line. Inevitably any instrumental additions must be editorial and whilst in 1999 this account probably seemed quite novel, to my ears the instrumental support in the mass is rather conservative and now you could imagine doing it in a far more dramatic fashion. That said, the instrumentalists support the fine polyphony of the Westminster Cathedral Choir and this is as fine an account of the mass as you could wish for. The Westminster boys still have a wonderful earthy tone which suits this music down to the ground.

The disc opens with the Corpus Christi hymn, Pange Lingua gloriosi where Guerrero alternates polyphony with plainchant. This seems to be performed with little or no instrumental accompaniment. Rather more instrumental effects are heard in Guerrero’s large motet In exitu Israel. Here again Guerrero alternates plainchant with polyphony, providing fifteen brief contrapuntal verses. And here, much variety is added by the varying use of instruments and voices. The result achieves a richness and variety which seem almost Venetian and makes you wonder how many other rather sober unaccompanied polyphonic pieces were intended by their composers to have these glorious trappings. In the Trinity motet, Duo Seraphim clamabant, Guerrero rather aptly uses three choirs. Here the instruments seem to have been used to supplement the Westminster forces to provide a wonderfully dramatic account of the piece which by far exceeds anything that the choir of 14 men and 24 boys could achieve alone.

The instrumentalists play Guerrero’s Regina caeli laetare alone giving us a glimpse of the sort of instrumental-only repertoire which must have been commonplace. The disc then finishes with Guerrero’s Magnificat on the 8th tone. What is recorded here is the composer’s 1584 revision of a piece published in 1563. The composer alternates chant and polyphony but at the end rather lets himself go with a final pair of polyphonic movements, with the last movement of all expanded to a rich six voices. Sung by a mixture of voices and instruments, the results are lavish indeed and easily transport you to Seville cathedral.

The disc concludes with the hymn Conditor alme siderum, a companion to the hymns recorded on Westminster’s first Guerrero CD.

The Mass has also been recorded more recently by The Sixteen, whose fine account is done a cappella rather than with the Sagbutts and Cornetts used by Westminster Cathedral. Both versions are well performed and which you choose will probably depend on your view of the instrumental accompaniment. For myself, I’d go for this colourful version from Westminster every time.

The excellent CD booklet includes extensive background notes by Bruno Turner along with texts in Latin and English.

This is a disc which wears its learning lightly. All the performances are of a very high calibre and extremely seductive. They are underpinned by Turner’s historical digging. This extends to using the correct Iberian forms of the plainchant.

Robert Hugill



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