30 May 2011

Philipp Schoendorff: The Complete Works

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
30 May 2011

Cinquecento are once again brilliant, sensitive and convincing. And yet their sixth album poses a delightful problem: that they appear to have the Midas touch with renaissance vocal polyphony somewhat complicates the ease with which we can form an opinion about the quality of the compositions they perform. As this ensemble continue to mine the lesser-known recesses of the sixteenth century, it is left to us listeners to probe beyond their beautiful performances and decide for ourselves if this music is merely formulaic mush, or the works of a composer that deserve to be remembered.

Musicologists, and indeed critics, are notoriously reluctant to discuss quality in early music. Even when we do have value judgments from contemporary writers it is hard for us to map them on to the works in question, as too often lines of argument are enmeshed in concepts and contemporary beliefs drawn from their own understanding of the ancient world. Period taste, as it were, looks set to remain just that: period.

Turning from issues of quality towards those of quantity, evidence for Schoendorff’s status as a ‘minor composer’ in his own day is rather obvious, even if I do dislike the term; his output is small. There are just two masses, a magnificat and a handful of motets that, considering his 30 years at the imperial court, suggests the three Kings were not beating a path to his door to beg for more works. Is it going to far to suggest that on this basis alone Schoendorff was just a trumpet player from Liège with more technique than inspiration? Well actually I think that would be jumping to a hasty (and wrong) conclusion.

The complicating factor is that Schoendorff’s short life occupies a problematic period for the Habsburgs. When Maximilian II died in 1576 his power transferred to his son, Rudolf II, who kept on his father’s musicians under the guidance of the much-respected Philippe de Monte. Within years, de Monte was in poor health and considering resignation. His court musicians were not only restricted by the developments of the Council of Trent but also with Rudolf’s disinterest in long elaborate service music. Had times been different, who knows how a figure like Schendorff may have flourished?  As it is, the music that he did write, although necessarily brief, suggests a healthy interest in career progression, since his 1587 Missa super La dolce Vista is both dedicated to his monarch and parodies one of his boss’s own Italian madrigals. Double flattery if you like.

On this recording, de Monte’s original madrigal is sung with a light and reflective character which is at once fond yet knowing. The subtle eroticism of “…dying for her a thousand times each day”, is not lost in either de Monte’s setting or in Cinquecento’s performance. The mass they sing with much more authority, providing a pleasing and subtle contrast. It is a short setting, much more so than de Monte’s own parody of the same material. The syllabic nature of Schoendorff’s score and use of the six voices in groups of two, three or four allows for some telescoping of the text as phrases overlap. This suits Cinquecento’s careful style and offers a chance for the listener to enjoy the individual quality of the voices as they appear in differing combinations.

In de Monte’s setting of Usqueqo Domine oblivisceris me? it is suggested that we hear something of the older composer’s discontent both in his choice of psalm 12 (How long Lord, will you forget me, forever?) and in his plaintive, pleading setting. Cinquecento make a larger, fatter sound in this music, which feels particularly expressive, and they display an enviable ‘nose’ for those many subtle madrigalian traits that are characteristic of de Monte’s polyphony.

Schoendorff’s mass setting of this motet is, surprisingly, bigger and less efficient than his Missa super La dolce vista. In many ways this more indulgent style suggests that Schoendorff had the ability to go much further as a composer had he wished. The expressive use of homophony is particularly skilfully executed by Cinquecento.

With a Magnificat and two other motets to hear it turns out that Schoendorff is well worth the discovery, as are Cinquecento if you haven’t already.  This is an album well worth looking out for and with such a great repertoire to explore there will be plenty of opportunity to hear more of this ensemble in future I hope.

Cinquecento (Hyperion CDA67854)

26 May 2011

Celebrating the King James Bible at 400

Originally written for Gramophone magazine
26 may 2011

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, a work that took 47 scholars seven years to translate from the Greek (for the New Testament) and from the Hebrew (for the Old). As a work of literature, the King James Bible stands on a par with the greatest works of the English language, and it has inspired millions of people down the ages, including numerous musicians. Ed Breen reflects on its remarkable power to draw extraordinarily powerful music from the composers who set it. 

Celebrating the King James Bible may for many musicians feel like a slightly tangential event, but to those of us who grew up as cathedral choirboys it holds special significance as the language of many anthems that we sang long before we knew what the words meant and which first persuaded us into a life of music. Yet we are all influenced by the King James Bible whether or not we know it; one of my students commented recently that certain composers were ‘a law unto themselves’ and I’m pretty sure she has never read the bible. Indeed one can find many examples in casual speech just like this, but not all such cherished biblical English is solely due to the King James Version; there is also an enormous debt to earlier translations and, in particular, the work of William Tyndale. But at what point did the King James Version itself start to infuse the musical world?

To read the full article, please follow this link:


7 May 2011

Francisco Guerrero: The Angel's Voice

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
07 May 2011

Far from being a just another cutesy title, The Angel's Voice explores a wealth of music written for upper voices by the Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). These compositions depart from the traditional 4-voice cantus-altus-tenor-bassus texture and use modern SAT voices and even those scored ad aequales, for equal voices. Reasons for writing in upper registers (and indeed lower ones too) in the sixteenth century can vary from a pragmatic need to satisfy the vocal forces at a particular composer's disposal to the need to invoke deeper meaning by illustrating some symbolic or theological content.

Guerrero spent his entire working life in Spain with appointments as maestro de capilla of Jaén Cathedral (aged 17) and maestro de capilla of Seville Cathedral on 9 March 1574 (after some 23 years in the assistant's post). He did, however, live a rather adventurous life; he undertook some major travels and was apparently twice captured by pirates when he travelled by sea between Genoa and Marseilles. Despite being home-grown in an age when so many composers 'cut their teeth' in Italy, Guerrero is one of the greatest Spanish composers, alongside Victoria and possibly Morales, in the field of church music in the later 16th century. This is a position that only recordings such as this one can really help us understand. There has long been a paucity of sixteenth-century Iberian music on disc, and considering the sheer volume and quality of Guerrero's work it comes as a surprise that there are currently fewer than fifteen discs exclusively devoted to his music on Amazon. After all, Guerrero composed 18 mass settings, over 150 secular works in other genres, as well as a modest amount of secular works.  This new Album by Ensemble La Sestina is therefore both a welcome addition and a necessary expansion of the current discography and in standard it sits happily alongside the work of polyphonic giants The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall's Musick and Westminster Cathedral Choir, who are among the highest-profile contributors on disc.

The mass on this recording is one in a long tradition of works based on the L'homme armé song which has possible connections with Charles the Bold and the knightly retinue of his father (Duke Philip-the-Good of Burgundy) called 'The Order of the Golden Fleece'. Certainly Guerrero is honouring a rich tradition by incorporating this song into his mass, yet the results are startlingly short and plain despite being modelled on a mass of the same name by Morales. That may sound like a criticism, but despite what Adriano Giardina himself refers to as 'loose woven' polyphony Guerrero's mass is exceedingly beautiful both in musical content and as realised in this performance. Softer sounding than the often laser-like brilliance of British Ensembles, Giardina's singers on are clearly enjoying the imitative nature of the part writing and invite us into an intimate and closely recorded sound world. The balance of clarity and delicacy in the Benedictus is especially well judged and deserves repeated listening.

The opening four voice motet of this programme, Gabriel archangelus, is in a more dense and serious style invoking a grandeur that is not so immediately apparent in the mass with its many sections for just two or three voices. There is some particularly beautiful singing in this motet (as indeed there is throughout the disc) but the breathtaking architecture of Guerrero's rolling phrases can feel rather underplayed in such a gentle performance. Maybe I am simply used to hearing Guerrero sung more stridently but I would certainly welcome either some more emotional charge or some more volume to compliment the motet's style.

The central section of this programme is somehow the most intriguing. A selection of three and four part Canciones y villanescas espirituales from a 1589 publication provide a quite different musical landscape which belies their religious sentiments. Madrigalian traits abound in the canciones whilst Giardina draws attention to the 'folksy' character of the villanescas (triple time, more use of homophony). These Spanish language works are not always easy to sing, although Ensemble La Sestina tackles them with an enviable skill and panache, which often allows them to bring out the impromptu qualities of the piece. There is a rather obvious edit at about 2'30 in vana sperança, but the performance is, as a whole, so good that it's hard to be distracted by it.

By choosing such contrasting pieces, Giardina and his ensemble offer a fascinating glimpse into the works of this major sixteenth-century composer. There is, I am convinced, much more to discover about Guerrero, and this recording will be welcomed by all who enjoy Spanish polyphony as well as complementing the many discs now available as part of Victoria's anniversary year.

Ensemble La Sestina / Adriano Giardina (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697824012)