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Francisco VALLS (c.1670-1747)
Missa Regalis [27:07]
Francisco CORRÊA DE AROUXO (1584-1654)
Tiento y discurso de Segundo tono (1626)
Juan Bautista José CABINILLES (1644-1712)
Tiento de falsas primer tono (late 17th Cent)
Tiento de media registro de tiple de séptimo tono [4.52]
The Choir of Keble College
Academy of Ancient Music/Matthew Martin
Joseph Crouch (Bass Violin) Inga Klaucke (Dulcian) Edward Higginbottom (Organ continuo) Matthew Martin (Organ solo)
rec. 2018/19, Chapel of Keble College, Oxford; Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge
AAM RECORDS AAM008 [40.47]

Francisco Valls is best known for an extraordinary controversy which may well seem rather niche in our own times but which was created by a passage of unprepared harmony in his ‘Missa Scala Aretina’ composed about 1720. In the ‘Qui tollis’ section of the ‘Gloria’ Valls asks the second soprano to enter with an unprepared dissonance (a ninth). This was ‘just not cricket’ and for half a dozen years a strong argument reigned against him or for him. He eventually wrote a dry and dusty theoretical tome ‘Mapa armónico’ to show that he wasn’t a charlatan.

This however is the premiere recording of another mass which, conductor Matthew Martin says in his notes, is a work he took a fancy to several years ago. So a decision was made by the Academy of Ancient Music’s own recording company to make this a really lavish presentation with a detailed booklet in hard backed covers the like of which one only rarely encounters.

It’s unfortunate, though, that all of the music only amounts to forty minutes and the seventy-page booklet may well take you that long to read! I’m sorry, as we still very little of his music, that space was not found for perhaps a Villancico or two by Valls, mentioned often in the essays or another organ work. But anyway let’s look at what we DO have.

This Mass was probably one of the composer’s last compositions and although he was Spanish it was written for the Portuguese King João V in1740. Portuguese sacred music at this time was extremely conservative, the older polyphony of the sixteenth century was still being used with only some concessions to the Italian baroque. Valls had been quite an ‘avant-garde’ figure in his earlier years but the concertante style as well as the popular religious Villancico’s had been abolished by 1740. However, as musicologist Alvaro Torrente avows in his excellent booklet essay that connections “between Valls and the Portuguese monarch are not easy to trace”, indeed we are not sure if the mass was ever performed at the Royal Chapel at all, as the manuscript appears a little unfinished. So why was it composed?

If you know the ‘Missa Scala Aretina’ you might recall that the ‘cantus firmus’, if it might be described as such, was based on a hexachord and was a rising scale. It so happens, and probably not by accident that the ‘Missa Regalis’ regularly employs a rising (and falling) major scale but this time centring on D and this creates a joyous atmosphere almost throughout.

The performances are award winning and the young choir of about twenty voices are in top form with only an occasional blemish in the lower voices in quieter passages. The scoring is for a continuo of keyboard, bass violin and dulcian. Their role is subtle and accompanimental and is played with a ideal stylistic balance. Matthew Martin’s tempi are perfectly chosen to enable text and musical detail to emerge with clarity.

The organ used and played by Matthew Martin for the solo pieces is the one in St. John’s College and built by Bernard Aubertin (2008). It works reasonably well for the three works but obviously lacks a true Iberian character where you might expect to hear, say, a Nazard stop or a Cornet or a Trompeta Real, for example. More importantly, however, Martin plays with style, neatness and elegance and he contributes several major essays in the booklet. There are brief biographies of the Arouxo and the more significant Juan Cabinilles, he writes also on the ‘Tiento’ with a table of the various types and a breakdown of their various characteristics, as well as on the development of early Spanish Music, characteristics of the Iberian organ and notes on the casework and pipework. Also on the sort of reed stops most frequently found, windchests, keyboards – and much more. As I have said above, it is therefore a pity that we only have the three solo works on the disc. There is also a fascinating essay by Simon Heigh on his editorial approach with much analytical description.

Is the music worth all this lavishment? I’m not so sure. The Mass is a well-crafted work and exciting in many ways, uplifting too. But there is a strong sense of the overly academic about it, a sense that perhaps the composer was more intent on demonstrating his skill rather than any emotional or expressive content. But it is mostly a concise setting with no Benedictus and the contrastingly homophonic Agnus Dei is not much more than two minutes in duration. It could work in a present day liturgical setting where the Credo would no doubt now be omitted.

So I fear that this is a rare case of superb presentation with very fine performances but music which may need a little more persuasion to convince and a disappointingly short playing time. So, ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Brian Wilson 

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