Francisco de PEÑALOSA (c.1470 – 1528)
Missa Ave Maria peregrina [34.59]
Sacris solemniis [6.14]
Missa Nunca fue pena mayor [24.47]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/James O’Donnell
rec. 30 June–3 July 1992, Westminster Cathedral

This terrific disc was first issued by Hyperion in 1993 and is now on their budget price label Helios. Under James O’Donnell, Westminster Cathedral Choir is at the peak of its form in Spanish music from the Golden Age.

Peñalosa is still not a common name on CD sleeves which makes the disc’s outstanding advocacy all the more welcome. His career spanned the conquest of Granada and the expulsion of the Moors, the discovery of the New World and the unification of the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile under the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella. It was the time when Spanish composers started to challenge the dominance of the Flemish style in polyphony. He was the most important figure among of this first generation of composers before Morales.

He started in 1498 as a singer in Ferdinand of Aragon’s chapel and began a long association with Seville cathedral in 1505. He spent time in Rome from 1517 to 1525; but seems to have only sung, no music has been preserved from this period. Most of his surviving pieces come from manuscripts originating in the Aragonese Royal Chapel.

His Missa Ave Maria peregrina uses the plainchant Ave Maria, but also parts of the Salve Regina which is sung by the tenor in the Sanctus and Hosanna. The mass is for four voices but in the final Agnus Dei, Peñalosa uses five and bases the movement on the secular chanson De tous biens plaine and parts of the Salve Regina. The two voices singing these are surrounded by strong counterpoint in a dazzling construction.

Missa Nunca fue pena mayor is a shorter mass, lacking a Benedictus and with only one Agnus Dei. It is based on a three-voiced villancico by the Flemish composer Johannes Wreede who had been a singer in the Aragonese Royal Chapel.

The programme is completed by Peñalosa’s Corpus Christi hymn Sacris Solemniis. Only one version of Peñalosa’s setting survives so here it is sung in the editor Bruno Turner’s reconstruction alternating polyphony with the popular melody that was used in Spain in the period. This makes a remarkable contrast for those of us used to hearing plainchant.

The performances bring out the full vibrancy of the music the intensity which has echoes of later Spanish composers like Vittoria. There is a brilliant, upfront feel to the performance which has a strongly non-English, almost Mediterranean feel. It helps that the choir sing with a top line provided by their trebles with the choir’s familiar full-throated sound. There are some moments, such as the Kyrie of Missa Ave Maria peregrina, when I did wonder whether the trebles might not be a little too intensely dominant, that the inner lines could have been given more prominence. This is a small point.

Given the vibrant and involving performances, this disc is intensely seductive. Many people will have the disc already, but if you don’t then buy it without hesitation.

Robert Hugill

Vibrant and involving performances. This disc is intensely seductive.