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Cristobal de MORALES (c.1500-1563)
Super Lamentationes
Capella de Ministrers / Carles Magraner
rec. 2019, Church of the Escolania de la Virgen de los Desamparados, Valencia, Spain

The Capella de Ministrers has an incredible discography on its own label. Including this one, there are forty-eight recordings (I have reviewed several of them). More than half have been given over to secular repertoire. Where sacred music has appeared, at no point have they devoted themselves to one composer. I have not always given them a high rating, so I was not sure if I would be sympathetic to this new disc.

Well, this performance has deeply and emotionally communicated with me. It may be because I have been listening to this disc, by chance, during Holy Week, or because we are in the midst of a terrible pandemic. I may have been slightly put off this vast work by a recording I reviewed a while back. A group called Utopia (Etcetera KTC1538) gave a totally a capella performance which just did not hit the mark for me. But this new CD has made me realise what an incredibly expressive and powerful work it is. It should, as the detailed and well informed booklet essay by Manuel del Sol propounds, be regarded as one of the greatest works of the sixteenth century, but it has been recorded little and performed complete even less.

It’s important to realise that these seven Lamentations (they were written probably in the 1530s but not exactly at the same time and not necessarily for the same institutions) became very well known throughout Europe and indeed in the Americas. Publication, however, was not until 1564, the year following Morales’s death. There has also been much confusion over the conflicting manuscript sources and therefore over the creation of a useful performing edition.

The text is divided into seven major parts with titles such as The Lord delivered Israel and The Lord destroyed Israel. Within these parts are three sections – tribes of Israel such as ‘Heth’ and ‘Aleph’, except in the last with just one tribe. Some are set to four voices (alto, two tenors and bass), some to five (a soprano is added). In the last section there is a sixth part. The prophet Jeremiah, credited with the text, he laments how Israel has turned away from God. Jesus echoed these words as he looked across Jerusalem in his last days and prophesied its destruction. The music was performed on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Each part ends with the same text: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convert to the Lord your GOD”. Morales sets the text in complex, often imitative, polyphony but carefully places occasional homophonic passages to highlight certain words or phrases.

What makes this recording special, expressive and intriguing is the accompaniment: five violones, one played by the group director Carles Magraner, and a lute. They often have their own passages between the sections and at the start of each part. There are also some a capella moments which stand out powerfully. To quote the booklet: “This recording… recovers the interpretive context of this repertoire in accordance with the musical practice of Emperor Carlos V’s Royal Chapel Choir, where the Lamentations were sung polyphonically with an instrumental accompaniment”.

A suitable recording venue was found: a vast baroque church in the centre of Valencia. The sound is vividly clear, quite close but not oppressively so. I did not appreciate all of the individual vocal qualities but that may be because I hail from a quite different British choral background. The texts and essay are clear and well translated in a booklet in a card casing.

Gary Higginson

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