in: Reviews

November 11, 2013

Spanish Polyphony Captivating

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Bringing music from earlier centuries to life often requires a behind-the-scenes team of scholarly sleuths. It is their job to ferret out forgotten manuscripts in hideaway archives, painstakingly transcribe their fragile pages, and sometimes even reconstruct missing or altered parts in order to make modern performances possible.

In 2002, musicologist and Boston College professor Michael Noone uncovered in the cathedral archives at Toledo a trove of previously unknown works by the Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales (ca. 1500-1553) and his pupil Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). Some of this newly-discovered music was brought to us on Saturday evening, November 9th, in a Boston Early Music Festival concert at St. Paul Church, Cambridge, by the Ensemble Plus Ultra, of which Noone and countertenor David Martin are co-directors. Founded in 2001, the UK-based consort of chamber singers has made a specialty of Spanish liturgical polyphony of the sixteenth century. For Saturdays’s concert, music by the best-known representatives of this repertory, Morales and Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), was juxtaposed with compositions by their teachers and pupils in a varied yet thematically consistent program.

The principal focus was on settings of the “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” verses that are sung in the Roman Catholic liturgy as lessons for the first Nocturn of Matins during the three days preceding Easter (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday). A series of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, these are among the most poignantly expressive of Biblical texts, and a favorite of composers for polyphonic settings from the mid-fifteenth century onward. Each verse is prefaced by a Hebrew letter, also set to music, and each lesson concludes with the refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God.”

Two Lamentation settings by Morales were included in the program. Et factum est postquam (And it came to pass) was composed in 1547 for performance at the cathedral of Toledo on Maundy Thursday. The only surviving manuscript of this work, however, was later severely tampered with, and Plus Ultra presented a reconstruction by the Australian musicologist Graeme Skinner. The five-voice setting was sung by the five male singers of the ensemble: David Martin, countertenor; William Balkwill and Simon Wall, tenors, Jonathan Brown, baritone, and James Birchall, bass, standing in a semicircle and performing without a conductor. Perfect tuning and smooth yet forthright tone quality were a given here, allowing full play to beautifully shaped individual lines that gave full value to the expressive texts without exaggeration. The performance of the four-voice Good Friday Lamentation, Vocavi amicos meos (I called for my friends) was equally riveting.

Born and educated in Seville, Morales sang in the papal choir in Rome before returning to serve as choirmaster at the cathedrals of Toledo and Málaga. One of Noone’s discoveries at Toledo was a previously unknown setting by Morales’s young apprentice Francisco Guerrero of the hymn Conditor alme siderum (O generous creator of the stars). By way of introduction, the tuneful chant on which Guerrero’s simple, primarily chordal setting was based was sung by soprano Katie Trethewey and mezzo Martha McLorinan. Another Toledo manuscript treasure brought to light by Noone contains works by Bernardino de Rivera (ca. 1520-ca. 1572), choir director at Ávila cathedral while Victoria was a choirboy. In Rex autem David filium (King David wept for his son), David mourns the death of his son Absalom in chromatically pungent descending lines. David’s lament was paired with Rachel’s lament over the slaughter of her children by Herod (Matthew 2:18, citing Jeremiah). The full ensemble participated in Rivera’s massive setting of this text, and again in Guerrero’s Marian antiphon Beata Dei genitrix Maria (O blessed Mary mother of God), the seven voices resounding gloriously in the highly resonant space.

The second half of the program was given over entirely to the music of Victoria, opening with his setting of the Maundy Thursday Lamentation text set by Morales two generations earlier. This was High Renaissance polyphony at its most accomplished, the text clearly delineated by successive imitative entries on motives that seem to arise naturally from the rhythm of the words, each voice artfully bridging over a cadence in another part. In the famous motet O magnum mysterium (O great mystery) for four voices, the imitations proceeded in pairs with beautiful transparency until the final triumphant “Alleluia.” Two motets for six voices on texts from the Song of Songs exemplify the appeal of its richly pictorial language to Renaissance composers. In Vadam et circuibo civitatem (I will rise and go about the city) the search for the beloved, symbolizing the soul’s search for fulfillment, gives rise to wandering motifs that finally coalesce as the voices unite. Nigra sum sed formosa (I am black but beautiful) opens with full chordal harmonies that Victoria, in a bit of literal eye-music, actually notated in black notes. The Trinity motet Duo seraphim (Two seraphim) alternates declamatory chordal passages with ornamental melisma, with voicing that literally renders “one,” “two,” and “three” as they occur in the text. As an encore, we were treated to Victoria’s joyful motet for All Saints Day, O quam gloriosum est regnum (O how glorious is the kingdom).

Being able to follow the texts would seem almost essential to the understanding and enjoyment of this kind of music. Ensemble Plus Ultra’s emphasis on impeccable tuning and mellifluous tone production may sometimes work against clear declamation, yet texts sung by different voices at different times are by definition almost impossible for listeners to sort out. Fortunately, the handsomely produced program clearly presented texts and translations along with informative notes. Thanks to the Boston Early Music Festival for including this accomplished ensemble on its roster, and to Plus Ultra for its captivating performance of a glorious repertory.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the commentary, which revived for me the wonderful concert we heard Saturday. This repertoire is so glorious and not often enough performed. We thought the performance was superb.

    Comment by Susan Pettee — November 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm

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