Tuesday, 24 May 2016

El Siglo de Oro: Westminster Cathedral Choir Sings Masterpieces of the Spanish Golden Age

This is a concert notice for Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance, to be performed by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral directed by Martin Baker at 19.30 on Wednesday 25 May 2016 (at the Cathedral). At 17.30 today, Tuesday 24 May 2016, Mr Baker will be interviewed on BBC Radio 3 In Tune to discuss the concert and the Cathedral Choir's CD of Alonso Lobo's music which is due to be released on 27 May 2016, excerpts of which may be found on the Hyperion website and YouTube . The audience at tomorrow night's concert will be able to purchase the CD two days prior to the official release. Tickets are £20 and the CD is likely to be between £10 and £15.  

Update: If you click on the link above to the BBC In Tune programme you can listen to interview with Martin Baker on demand for the next 29 days as at writing (23.13 BST 24 May 2016). The interview includes two full tracks from the new Lobo CD - Jerusalem, Jerusalem from the Lamentations, and the Kyrie from the Missa Maria Magdalene.


"A controversial record, then; but it is certainly one that all lovers of late Renaissance church music ought to hear."

So ended one of Gramophone Magazine's reviews of Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance, a significant contribution to the catalogue of polyphony from Spain's Siglo de Oro, recorded by Westminster Cathedral Choir under David Hill in 1985 and released the following year. 

Another Gramophone reviewer wrote:

"... the recording ... tries its best to unravel the multiple ... strands of the part singing and at the same time blend in proper amounts of the accompanying instrumentalists and the impressive reverberation of the Cathedral itself. On the whole it succeeds, now and again with some distinction."

The "accompanying instrumentalists" included a dulcian, harp and organ (played by James O'Donnell, David Hill's eventual successor at Westminster Cathedral). 

Even as late as the mid 1980s, the "early music" movement at this point in full swing, sacred works by renaissance composers other than Victoria and Morales were in relatively short supply. Hence the importance of a new record that highlighted the brilliance of composers such as Francisco Guerrero, Alonso Lobo (one of Guerrero's students) and Sebastian de Vivanco. Gramophone's reservations about the execution of some of the pieces notwithstanding, this disc remains a benchmark from which all other recordings of similar works can be judged. The full track listing is:

1. Guerrero Surge Propera Amica Mea
2. Guerrero O altitudo divitiarum
3. Guerrero O Domine Iesu Christe
4. Guerrero O Sacrum Convivium
5. Guerrero Ave Virgo Sanctissima
6. Guerrero Regina Caeli Laetare
7. A Lobo Versa Est in Luctum 
8. A Lobo Ave Maria
9. A Lobo O quam suavis est, Domine 
10. Sebastian de Vivanco Magnificat Octavi Toni

It is partly in celebration of this momentous disc, and partly to herald its new disc exclusively (with one exception) dedicated to the work of A Lobo, that Westminster Cathedral Choir will this Wednesday 25 May 2016 give a concert with the same title as the 1985 recording, though apart from works by Guerrero, A Lobo, and Vivanco there will be two by Victoria (whose magnificent eight part Ave Maria will conclude the concert - click here to listen to Westminster Cathedral Choir singing part of this work at St Peter's Basilica in Rome a few years ago). 

The full programme is: 

Guerrero Surge propera
Guerrero O Domine Iesu Christe
Guerrero O sacrum convivium
Guerrero Ave virgo sanctissima
Guerrero Regina cæli à 8


Lobo Versa est in luctum
Guerrero Maria Magdalene
Lobo Missa Maria Magdalene (Gloria)


Victoria Ave Maria à 4
Vivanco Magnificat octavi toni
Lobo O quam suavis
Victoria Ave Maria à 8

Westminster Cathedral Choir
Martin Baker: conductor
Peter Stevens: organ

The audience will have the privilege of being able to purchase the new CD a few days in advance of its official release. Sound samples are already available on the Hyperion Records website (and quite probably on other sites) as well as on YouTube

The track listing is: 

1. Maria Magdalene Et Altera Maria

A Lobo
Missa Maria Maria Magdalene
2. Kyrie
3. Gloria
4. Credo
5. Sanctus Et Benedictus
6. Agnus Dei

7. De Lamentatione Jeremiae Prophetae
8. Misericordia Domini
9. Novi Diluculo
10. Pars Mea Dominus
11. Bonus Est Dominus
12. Bonum Est Praestolari
13. Bonum Est Viro
14. Sebedit Solitarius
15. Ponet in Pulvere Os Suum
16. Dabit Percutienti Se Maxillam
17. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Convertere Ad Dominum Deum Tuum

18. Regina Caeli
19. O Quam Suavis Est, Domine

It is slightly odd that the title of the forthcoming disc only refers to the Lobo Lamentations, given the presence of the Missa Maria Magdalene (a parody Mass based on the Guererro motet Maria Magdalene Et Altera Maria). One can hazard a guess that this was to distinguish it from the Tallis Scholars CD of the Mass and Guerrero motet, though there is certainly no shame in replicating this repertoire especially as the Tallis Scholars disc appears to be the only other recording of the Mass (the Cardinall's Musick have recorded the Guerrero motet though it is a less than satisfying performance - unlike the rest of that particular disc). 

The Tallis Scholars disc of Lobo is notable for its crystal clear articulation and perfect arching passages. Despite its significantly larger size, the Westminster Cathedral Choir definitely has the capacity to replicate such clarity of sound while also adding the ethereal dimension for which the British cathedral and college choirs are celebrated. Early indications from the samples already made available are that we will be treated to some fine singing and that at the very least the Westminster Cathedral CD will compare favourably to the Tallis Scholars disc.  

One further point to make is that for the recording of the Choir's last CD, the acclaimed disc of The Byrd Masses, the Choir was apparently arranged in a square formation in the vast Sanctuary below the high altar. This was perhaps to overcome some of the problems associated with making recordings from where the choir usually sings for Mass (high up in the Apse), sometimes causing what I describe as the "washing machine" effect when the separate parts can become indiscernible. For this latest recording, it sounds like the choir may well have adopted a similar technique, such is the apparent clarity of the part singing. 

I must say, having just visited this music's country of origin where it is sporadically performed at best (and then almost never at Mass or Vespers), it is reassuring to return to the UK where this music continues to live on in both the context for which it was intended as well as in the concert arena. Hence let me renew this blog's admiration of and appreciation for the many people involved in keeping sacred music alive and well in the 21st century.  

Your humble scribe files this report from Madrid