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Amarae Morti
Dominique PHINOT (c. 1510-c. 1556)
Incipit oratio Jeremiae prophetae [11:58]
Orlande de LASSUS (1530/1532-1594)
Media vita [6:03]
Lamentatio tertia, primi diei [7:31]
Regina caeli [3:00]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c. 1495-c. 1560)
Media Vita [5:58]
Manuel CARDOSO (1566-1650)
Lamentatio Feria Quinta II- Lectio II [5:58]
Tomas de Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Regina Caeli a 8 [4:26]
Magnificat Primi Toni a 8 [9:21]
Cristobal de MORALES (c. 1500-1553)
Regina Caeli a 6 [4:45]
Giovanni da PALESTRINA (1525/1526-1594)
Laudate Pueri a 8 [7:18]
El León de Oro / Peter Phillips
rec. 2016, Iglesia de Santiago El Mayor, Sariego, Asturias, Spain
Texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA68279 [66:24]

Two Iberian-based choirs have released debut discs on Hyperion in the last couple of months; I count myself fortunate indeed to have been able to review both. The first was a splendid recording of Manuel Cardoso’s sacred works performed by his Portuguese compatriots Cupertinos, a ten-piece group. El León de Oro, based directly north of la Raya in Asturias, are a 33-strong amateur choir. They won the 2014 London International A Cappella competition, an event established by Peter Phillips who has since become the choir’s honorary director, and leads them here. Their regular conductor, Marco García de Paz, is one of the basses.

The glorious acoustic of the Iglesia de Santiago El Mayor – the homely Asturian church where this disc was recorded – plays a major part in its success. When I first put it on, I felt that any slight lack of the forensic clarity that is pretty well omnipresent in Hyperion’s recordings with smaller choirs was more than compensated by the sincerity of these singers’ projection of the texts, and by the palpable warmth of their sound. As it happens, the Lamentations setting that opens the disc, Incipit oratio Jeremiae prophetae by Dominique Phinot, has previously featured on a Hyperion portrait (CDA 67696 - review) dedicated to this Franco-Flemish pioneer of polychoral composition. That CD was recorded in 2008 by Stephen Rice’s Brabant Ensemble. It is instructive to compare the two accounts. Both are wonderful; the Brabant account arguably better emphasises Phinot’s ambitious structures, while the singing is polished, secure and unquestionably beautiful. In the two central sections of the piece, Phinot twists the idea of parallel four-part choirs (and why not: this kind of polychoral writing was new, and if there were any rules they were fair game for mavericks like Phinot). He deploys high voices to the Pupilli facti sumus (We have become orphans) verse, while the lower voices offer a stark foil in Cervicibus minabamur (Our necks were threatened) that immediately follows. The Brabants’ crystalline clarity is certainly impressive, but there is a satisfying richness in the sound of the bigger choir. This juxtaposition of high and low voices is especially effective (and profoundly affecting) in the new account, while the impact of the full choir’s return for the concluding sections is reinforced. This comparison is certainly not about expressing a preference; the readings sound very different, yet each is successful in its own terms, and both amply demonstrate that Phinot’s wonderful setting deserves wider currency.

We then have some Lassus, another intensely rendered Lamentations text bookended by a haunting six-voice setting of Media Vita – whose ethereal, high-flung lines truly soar in this acoustic – and a vivacious Regina caeli. Peter Phillips fashions fresh yet fastidiously prepared accounts by El León de Oro. As I drilled down through Hyperion’s documentation, I noticed that for the latter two of these pieces Phillips used editions prepared by the great Lassus expert Clive Wearing. This provided a bitter-sweet moment for your reviewer. I have been active as a lecturer in academic psychology for most of my life, and Wearing’s name has rather tragically become synonymous with research into amnesia. In March 1985, he contracted a virus which destroyed much of his hippocampus and consequently wiped out much of his episodic memory; his singular condition is thought to be one of the most extreme examples of amnesia ever identified. These luminous performances thus provided a touching and timely reminder of his renowned musicological work.

Another six-voice setting of Media Vita follows, by Nicolas Gombert. Intricately wrought as it is, it provides something of a stark emotional contrast to the Lassus that precedes it. Nor is the complexity of its counterpoint compromised by the size of this choir; they project the detail as convincingly as many smaller professional groups. However, while Iberian repertoire is patently in El León de Oro’s DNA, their readings of Victoria’s Regina caeli and the longer Magnificat primi toni seemed just a little generic. The genuine passion they generate is insufficient to carry this repertoire in isolation. I have certainly heard more detailed, nuanced accounts of these pieces. Perhaps this can be better illustrated by comparing their reading of the extract from Cardoso’s Lamentations to Cupertinos’ piquant interpretation of the same piece on their disc which I mentioned earlier. Both performances are profoundly affecting, but the precision and security in the professional Portuguese group’s eloquently crafted reading perhaps yields the greater musical rewards.

The performances of the two pieces that close this disc are both technically assured and moving. Cristobal de Morales’s six-part setting of Regina Caeli is dispatched with the lilting swing Phillips clearly strives for (and discusses in his notes). The best-known work of all in this miscellany, Palestrina’s eight-part Laudate pueri is profoundly impressive. Phillips’s masterly pacing draws a committed and focused response from the singers.

Peter Phillips has recognised that the amplitude and naturalness of El León de Oro’s sound, combined with the generous acoustic on offer in this particular church provide a perfect match for all of this carefully chosen repertoire, whether it conveys a spirit of contemplation, consolation or glorification. As a consequence, listening to the disc straight through is a delight. One can hear at once why Phillips was so keen to travel to rural Spain to work with this choir. One also hopes that their experience of recording with him will bear fruit on future discs.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: John Quinn

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