Cristóbal de MORALES (c.1500-1553)
The Seven Lamentations
Utopia (Griet De Geyter (soprano); Bart Uvyn (counter-tenor); Adriaan De Koster (tenor); Lieven Termont (baritone); Bart Vandewege (bass))
rec. February 2016, Kapel van Zusters van Liefde Jezus en Maria, Ghent, Belgium
ETCETERA KTC1538 [62.56]

Cristóbal de Morales was a very influential and significant composer during the first half of the sixteenth century. This was not only because of his skill in polyphonic writing and his sense of personal expression but also because he worked at the Papal chapel under Pope Paul III, leaving in 1545 after ten years' service. He therefore knew Palestrina whose first book of masses has the same frontispiece as a publication of Morales’ masses. It shows the composer kneeling, presenting the music to the Pope. It was probably for the Sistine chapel that these Lamentations were composed.

It’s important to realise that these Lamentations, probably written in the 1530s, were well known not only throughout Europe but also in South America. Manuscripts and publications had found their way there via the many Iberian composers who were seconded to work at the new cathedrals in Guatemala or Bolivia or in Mexico City. Therefore it's all the more curious that this is the first integral recording of these rare works, the location of parts of which was for a time little known. How did this come about?

It was not until 1564 that the Lamentations were published, more than a decade after Morales's death. With so many manuscripts of these Lamentations in circulation its not surprising that versions can often be corrupt and so the problem of which version is to be preferred must arise. Indeed another version of the last one has only recently turned up. This has led some groups to just sing or record a few, for example the Brabant Ensemble who recorded three of the longer ones, Coph, Zai and Nun (Hyperion CDA67694: review review). Singing all seven, one after the other, does not make a full CD so Utopia has included three plainchant settings of the text. The final lines ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad dominum’ which close each verse were added in the sixteenth century. The text itself became very popular in that century due to its complete publication by Petrucci in 1506. The best-known settings are probably by Tallis, Lassus and Victoria but there are countless others.

Each section is prefixed by a Hebrew letter, set quite melismatically, representing a Hebrew tribe, as Jeremiah - supposedly the author - laments how they had turned away from God. Each section contains normally three letters. These form an acrostic poem. The music or lessons from the Bible was performed on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday . They would at other times have been intoned. However, for those special days the texts were given elaborate polyphony although Morales also carefully places homophonic passages to highlight certain words or phrases. In addition Morales uses plainchant as a cantus firmus technique. Eugeen Schreurs in his excellent booklet notes pinpoints several places where the plainchant is clearly audible, for example in the section ‘plorans ploravit’ (track 9 ‘Et factum est postquam’). The chant was taken by Morales from a collection entitle ‘Passionarium’ and printed in 1516. The CD box seems to indicate that the plainsong interludes (tracks 3, 6, 8) are also those used in the city of Alcalá de Henares which boasts a large cathedral built at about this time (finished 1516) and has a famous town centre monument to Don Quixote.

The Belgian singers that make up the group Utopia consist of one female and four male singers. I really like the warm and homogeneous sound they make. Their voices also blend perfectly but I only occasionally felt emotionally involved. Why was that? First, the recording is too close and lacks atmosphere; there's no breathing space. Second, the phrasing, often difficult to stress in Morales, lacks shaping. It may be the music itself, which is very restrained and not consistently the best of Morales. Although the Brabant Ensemble only recorded three sections of The Lamentations I prefer them, not only because of their light and spacious acoustic but also because of their expressive quality and phrasing. That said, the plainchant on this new disc is beautifully paced and focused.

Only the Latin text is given so keep your Bible handy if you want to understand the text. There is an attractive colour photo of the group and the usual dry-as-ditchwater group biography.
Gary Higginson

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