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João Rodrigues ESTEVES (c.1700-after 1751)
Mass for 8 Voices [26:51]
Motet: Pinguis est panis [4:26]
Christmas Responsories [36:37]
David Goode, Philip Millward (organ)
Andrew Carwood (tenor); Mike McCarthy (bass)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. 25-27 November 1996, Dorchester Abbey, Oxon. DDD
Booklet with texts and translations included
NIMBUS NI5516 [68:06] 

Also included in 5-CD set: European Choral Music, 1525-1751 (NI1758, with Lassus, Palestrina and Victoria)

This recording was first released in 1997 and my colleague Johan van Veen reviewed it some considerable time ago.

I’m revisiting it now because two of the Christmas responsories from this album were included on a recent recording of Christmas Music (NI7096 – review and review) and made such a profound effect on me that I asked for a copy of the original release for a second review.  There’s no harm in reminding anyone who didn’t obtain it before what a real discovery Esteves’ music is and what a strong case the Christ Church choir make for it.

All too little is known about Esteves and there’s very little of his music on record.  There’s only one other recording devoted entirely to him, containing the same 8-part Mass as on this Nimbus CD (Ambronay AMY006, with Miserere and Stabat Mater) and another recording of the 8-part Mass is coupled with Domenico Scarlatti’s 10-part Stabat Mater on Accent (ACC10069).

I downloaded the Ambronay recording on which the performers are the Ensemble Européen William Byrd directed by Graham O’Reilly from eclassical.com where it’s available in mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless and comes with a pdf booklet.  For no logical or liturgical reason the Kyrie and Gloria are separated from the rest of the Mass by the 8-part Lamentations and Stabat Mater.

I also listened to the Accent recording from Naxos Music Library. The Currende Vocal Ensemble is conducted by Erik van Nevel and the Mass is not divided as on Ambronay. There’s no booklet from NML or from their download partners classicsonline.com.  This performance comes with cello, violone and organ continuo but their presence is never over-prominent.  This is a distinguished ensemble and their recording is worth having if you are looking for the Scarlatti Stabat Mater, but you may already have a good recording of that work, such as the budget-price Hyperion Helios made by Christ Church Cathedral choir under their earlier director, Francis Grier (CDH55172, with Salve Regina – CD, mp3 and lossless download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk).

In any case, it’s for the Christmas responsories that the Nimbus recording is valuable, the only recording of music which outshines the Mass setting.  Fine as that is, it’s a touch routine by comparison with the responsories, which seem to be bursting out of the conventions of church music.  If van Nevel’s team give the Mass a little more colour than Christ Church, it’s a close thing.

Both are slightly preferable to the Ambronay and I found the separation of the tracks of the Mass on that album annoying, though again that’s a version well worth considering if you want the other Esteves works.  In fact, with only the Mass in common it’s worth having as an adjunct to the Nimbus.  If you go for the Nimbus and enjoy Esteves’ music as much as I anticipate, you may wish to follow up with the Ambronay.  The 24-bit download is rather pricey at $19.88 but the mp3 and 16-bit are more reasonable at $13.25: the CD equivalent sells for around £13.  The booklet in all formats contains texts and translations.  Though it’s a live recording, the audience are hardly noticeable until the brief applause at the end.

Good as the 24-bit recording of the Ambronay is, it doesn’t put the Nimbus recording in the shade.  At the time Nimbus were using Dorchester Abbey for their Christ Church recordings on the basis of its less resonant acoustic. The sound is admirably clear.  Indeed, some may wish for a little more resonance, though you won’t find any more on the other recordings. Merton College chapel now suits Nimbus’s Christ Church recordings better in that respect.

There was a second reason for asking for a new copy.  When Johan van Veen reviewed it, he pointed out some confusion in the booklet regarding the text and translation of one of the responsories. We printed a postscript to the effect that Nimbus intended to revise the booklet but that has not happened as yet if the booklet I received is anything to go by.

Track 13 should read Beata viscera Mariæ Virginis – blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary – and the translation should continue: ‘which bore the Son of the eternal Father, and blessed are the breasts which gave milk to Christ the Lord.  Today He has deigned to be born of a virgin for the salvation of the world.  The day of salvation has shone upon us; come, you nations, come and worship the Lord’.

If you bought the Christ Church Christmas recording and want to explore Esteves further, any one of the three recordings that I have mentioned would serve your purpose very well, but I suggest starting with the Nimbus.  Sample from Naxos Music Library if you’re not sure.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Johan van Veen