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Sacred Treasures of Spain
The London Oratory Schola Cantorum/Charles Cole
rec. 2017, St Alban's Church, Holborn, London
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a 16/44 FLAC download with pdf-booklet from Hyperion
HYPERION CDA68359 [69:49]

Today, the performance of the polyphony of the Renaissance is pretty much the domain of specialized vocal ensembles, which sing masses and motets as part of a concert in a church or even a modern concert hall. The majority of recordings also features such ensembles. However, around the globe there are choirs for which this repertoire is part of the liturgy. They sing this kind of music on a daily basis. One of such choirs is the Westminster Cathedral Choir, which has recorded frequently for Hyperion. The present disc is the second of another choir of this kind, The London Oratory Schola Cantorum. This institution roots in the tradition of the first Oratory, founded by St Philip Neri in Rome in the 1570s. "The Chiesa Nuova, where the Roman Oratory ultimately became established, drew in the young and fostered their faith. We aim to to continue this mission, immersing the boys of the Schola in this repertory which so perfectly expresses truth (...)", the choir's director, Charles Cole, writes in the booklet.

The consequence is that performances of the choir can't be judged according to strictly historical criteria. Obviously, given that until the 18th century women were generally not allowed to sing in church (although there were some exceptions), performances of renaissance polyphony by an all-male choir is definitely very 'authentic', more than any performance by a specilized ensemble of women and men can ever be. On the other hand, a choir of more than fifty singers is larger than almost any choir performing liturgical music in the 16th century across Europe. Even those places where polychoral music was performed, such as Venice, Rome or Munich, may never have seen such a large group of singers.

Therefore, a comparison between the performances offered by The London Oratory Schola Cantorum and ensembles of specialists in this kind of repertoire makes little sense. The parameters are just too different. It is notable that the aim of this recording - and the previous one, 'Sacred Treasures of Christmas' (review) - is not purely musical, as Cole expresses in his notes: "[We] are delighted to be able to share this music and its higher purposes with a wide audience".

Whereas the Christmas disc shows that the repertoire of the choir is quite versatile, the present disc focuses on one important part of 16th-century polyphony: the music which was written in Spain in a period known as the 'Golden Era' (El Siglo de Oro). There is no lack of recordings of this kind of music, and it is not surprising that some pieces on the programme are quite familiar, such as Victoria's two settings of Ave Maria. He is the most famous composer of the Spanish Golden Era, with Francisco Guerrero in second place. It is nice that this disc also included pieces by composers who are less familiar. That goes in particular for Bernardino de Ribera, Melchior Robledo and Juan Esquivel. Even Sebastian Vivanco and Alonso Lobo are not commonly known.

The veneration of Mary was an important part of the Catholic faith, but in Spain it took probably an even more important place in worship than elsewhere. That is reflected by the motets written by Spanish composers. In this programme pieces related to the Virgin Mary figure prominently. It opens with a setting of the Regina caeli, one of the four Marian antiphons; Guerrero quotes the plainchant melody fragmentarily. Another Marian antiphon is Salve Regina, here performed in a setting by Melchior Robledo, who was maestro de capilla at the cathedrals of Tarragona and Zaragoza. This piece is an alternatim setting, alternating plainchant and polyphony, a quite common procedure in the Renaissance.

Another famous Marian text is Ave Maria, opening with the words of the angel when he visited Mary to tell her that she was going to be the mother of the son of God. In the course of time, texts have been added which reflect the doctrine of the church that Mary was mediator between the faithful and God: "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death". Here we hear two different settings by Victoria, whose second sections have slightly different texts. One of them is for four voices, and its authenticity is not entirely established. The second is for eight voices in two choirs, which largely imitate each other. These settings are quite different, but what they have in common is that they show how Spanish composers of the Renaissance were able to use the means of the stile antico, in which text expression is rare and harmony is seldom used for expressive reasons, for creating a piece that expresses the emotions of the faithful, especially with regard to the Virgin Mary. It seems to me that Spanish composers were able to bring something to these texts that is missing from settings by contemporaries, such as Palestrina.

Other pieces are also connected to the veneration of Mary, such as Dulcissima Maria by Sebastián de Vivanco, who worked in Segovia, Ávila and Salamanca. Guerrero's Ave virgo sanctissima is a famous motet which has been found in archives as far away as Latin America. It includes a canon of the two treble parts. Many motets were written for Corpus Christi, such as Guerrero's O sacrum convivium and Juan Esquivel's Ego sum panis vivus. Esquivel was a rather productive composer, which unfortunately is not reflected by the number of recordings of his oeuvre.

The disc ends with two pieces by Alonso Lobo, who was maestro de capilla in Toledo and Seville. Versa est in luctum is a text from the Office of the Dead, and Lobo's setting, written at the occasion of the death of Philip II, is his best-known work, often included in performances of Requiem masses, for example that by Victoria. At the time I am writing this review, ArkivMusic lists 27 recordings of this work. O quam suavis est is the setting of a text from the pen of Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the medieval church, and still of great influence in the Catholic Church of our time. It is a worthy close of a disc devoted to music which is of considerable age, but still very much part of the Catholic liturgy of our time.

In the first paragraphs of this review I discussed the issue of 'authenticity'. Performances of an all-male choir are certainly in line with what was the standard in the 16th century. In recent decades, a number of British cathedral choirs have allowed girls into their ranks. That is great from the angle of equal opportunities. It is nice if girls get the same opportunities of vocal and choral training as boys. However, the tendency to let them sing together is not in the interest of a performance of renaissance polyphony. A choir of boys and girls just can't imitate the unique sound of an all-male choir as we have here. That is all the more reason to treasure a choir like that of the London Oratory. And talking about 'authenticity', there is another important aspect which makes these performances entirely 'authentic': this music was never intended for concert performance, but for the liturgy, just as it is treated in this institution.

And a very fine choir it is. I enjoyed the Christmas disc, and I am just as happy with the present recording, also because I happen to have a special liking of Spanish polyphony. I hoped it would be served well by this disc, and it is. The singing is excellent, and shows a commitment which is undoubtedly the effect of the music's being the singers' daily bread. The pieces recorded here are treasures indeed, and so is this disc. I hope that Hyperion will offer this choir more opportunities for recordings of their repertoire.

Johan van Veen

Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599)
Regina coeli a 8 [04:23]
O Domine Jesu Christe [04:46]
Ave virgo sanctissima [05:02]
O sacrum convivium [05:10]
Bernardino DE RIBERA (c1520-?1580)
Dimitte me ergo [04:21]
Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1555)
Peccantem me quotidie [03:51]
Melchior ROBLEDO (c1520-?1587)
Salve Regina [10:16]
Juan ESQUIVEL (c1560-bef. 1630)
Ego sum panis vivus [03:05]
Sebastián DE VIVANCO (c1551-1622)
Dulcissima Maria [05:48]
Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611)
Ave Maria a 4 [02:41]
Ave Maria a 8 [06:06]
O quam gloriosum [02:27]
Alonso LOBO (1555-1617)
Versa est in luctum [05:42]
O quam suavis est, Domine [06:00]

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