2 Dec 2020

Cambridge Introductions to Music: Renaissance Polyphony

Cambridge Introductions to Music: Renaissance Polyphony
Fabrice Fitch

The Cambridge Introductions to Music have quickly established themselves as a bridge for undergraduates seeking a deeper dive into essential topics. This is the eighth of nine titles on their website, and of the three I have read (the others being Gregorian Chant by David Hiley and The Sonata by Thomas Thomas Schmidt-Beste) I find the format superb: well targeted, generously detailed and unapologetically demanding. As the collection grows, I hope it will also carve out a niche with music-literate audiences. In this latest addition, Renaissance Polyphony, Fabrice Fitch offers a tightly focused overview with only occasional diversions into other forms of Renaissance music and ‘new cultural history.’ [...] The result is the sort of book we all really needed when we were undergraduates, a genuinely interesting but calm ordering of essential topics that will spark interest in Renaissance Polyphony at each turn. In fact, Renaissance music studies is now a richly represented field and Fitch’s powerful short volume will offer something unique alongside the Cambridge histories of fifteenth and sixteenth century music as well as Richard Freedman’s Music in the Renaissance (Norton’s Western Music in Context series) to name a few.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2020)

1 Dec 2020

Sheppard: Media vita

Sheppard: Media vita
Choir of New College Oxford, Robert Quinney

There are many reasons why this this new release from the Choir of New College Oxford directed by Robert Quinney will not disappoint, and chief among them are four premiere recordings and a consistently radiant sound with confident, purposeful phrasing. [...]

Lastly, it is pleasing to hear John Sheppard’s monumental Media Vita sounding so rich and full with a memorable countertenor sound. Sad, perhaps, that in our current pandemic the text ‘in the midst of life we are in death’ should strike us so poignantly but thrilling to hear such young voices do justice to one of Sheppard’s finest works.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Dec 2020)

8 Nov 2020

Josquin: Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie - Missa D'ung aultre amer - Missa Faysant regretz

Josquin Masses: Hercules Dux Ferrarie, D’ung aultre amer, Faysant regretz
The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM 051

This ends a hugely enjoyable project begun in 1986, not originally envisaged as a complete cycle of Josquin’s masses but which spawned consistently superb releases until completion became inevitable. This final disc is described by Philips as a ‘showcase for [Josquin’s] genius’ and presents a trio of early-middle works offering some exquisite textures. Who better to navigate such extraordinary music than the masters of tranquillity and clarity themselves, The Tallis Scholars, their exacting style delineates the distinctive sound-world of each mass whilst maintaining a consistent sonic beauty.

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie is based on eight notes derived from the vowels of the Duke’s name; as Phillips explains ‘Ercole I d’este of Ferrara, liked to hear his name often, loud and clear.’ The tenors shimmer brightly on this repeated tune whilst the superius (uppermost) line is gentle and understated. An enjoyable comparison can be made with The Hilliard Ensemble (EMI Reflexe 49960) whose strong countertenors draw more focus to the top of the texture. As ever, one greedily awaits the canonic passages in The Tallis Scholars’ performance since their glassy serenity lends itself to such textures. The six-voiced Agnus Dei is sublime.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Nov 2020)

1 Oct 2020

John Sheppard: Media Vita in Morte Sumus

John Sheppard: Media Vita in Morte Sumus
Alamire, David Skinner
Inventa Records INV1003

John Sheppard’s (c.1515-1558) monumental antiphon Media Vita in Morte Sumus (in the midst of life we are in death) is one of the most arresting works of Tudor England. This sixteen-minute EP (recorded 2012) is freshly released and newly edited to reflect the likely liturgical practice of Sheppard’s day following research by Professor John Harper and Jason Smart. In brief, the canticle Nunc Dimitis appears immediately after the initial plainsong incipit Media Vita, following which the whole of the Media Vita antiphon is sung followed by the usual verses and short invocations without the repeats heard on older releases. The result is a distilled, striking work accompanied by a thoughtful programme note reminding us that the composer lost his life in London’s 1550s influenza epidemic.

Alamire perform Media Vita at a pitch where their tenors shine particularly brightly. In their hands this polyphony has a lower centre of gravity than the initial famous recording by The Tallis Scholars (CDGIM016) yet it retains a similar sheen. I particularly admire the pace of the opening which finds an atmosphere of wonder as the enormity of Shepherd’s polyphony is unveiled. Although I retain a fondness for the high-pitched performances of English Tudor music pioneered by David Wulstan / Clerkes of Oxenford, this new release from Alamire is magnificent and unmissably poignant in these times of pandemic.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Oct 2020)

25 Aug 2020

Cupertinos: a passion for Portuguese polyphony

‘It was a great pleasure to meet Luís Toscano and to hear the Cupertinos live at Cadogan Hall last February,’ says Edward Breen, author of this month’s feature on the vocal ensemble. ‘Their charismatic performances inspired me to embark on a lockdown listening odyssey of Portuguese polyphony.’

It’s not called a golden age for nothing: the polyphony of renaissance Portugal is deeply expressive and shares a richly extended post-Palestrina lexicon with its Spanish counterparts. On occasion it also features well controlled wafts of chromaticism echoing Gesualdo and his kind. So, if you are new to this music don’t let anyone sell you a story of minor masters, Portugal has serious talent. Furthermore, due to a sixty-year Spanish rule (1580–1640) Portugal’s golden age often described as pan-Iberian at least until the restoration of their monarchy with King John IV, João o Restaurador. To be sure King Philip of Spain had supported the Portuguese musicians during his rule, but it is through a Byrd-esque concentration on texts describing the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity under foreign rule that we detect a yearning for independence being communicated by these artists, so the history of the music is also fascinating.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Sept 2020)

24 Aug 2020

The Call of Rome

The Call of Rome: Music by Allegri, F. Anerio, Josquin and Victoria

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
Coro F COR16178

The draw of Italy for mid sixteenth century northern European composers – oltremontani - ‘those from the other side of the alps’ and their eventual succession by Italian composers is a well explored program, yet here Harry Christophers includes several lesser known works to mark the 20th anniversary of The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage.

Opening with Victoria’s (1548-1611) Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday the singing is characteristically clear and impassioned with the solo quintet particularly vivid and gripping in O Vos Omnes: ‘Look, all you peoples,/ And see my sorrow.’ Interlacing this programme are motets by Josquin (1452-1521) which create a few sudden chronological shifts much softened by assured performances. Pater Noster / Ave Maria is surely one of Josquin’s best and this rich six-voice setting flows beautifully on this album. Impressive too is Illibata Dei virgo, in which an acrostic embeds Josquin’s own name. The balance of controlled, flowing duets with nimble passagework is delightful.


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Sept 2020)

19 Jul 2020

Claude Le Jeune : Le Printemps

Claude Le Jeune : Le Printemps
Ensemble Gilles Binchois
Dominique Vellard

Claude Le Jeune (1528/30-1600) was one of the more adventurous composers of the late 16th century and part of a movement seeking to restore the effects of ancient music. The collection of 39 works in Le printemps (of which 13 are selected on this disc) represent his work imitating the poetic forms and metres of classical antiquity, a movement encapsulated in verse by Joachin Du Bellay in 1549: ‘Sing to me those odes, yet unknown to the French music, on a lute well tuned to the sound of the Greek and Roman lyre!’ (La défense et illustration de la langue française). What sounds rather technical is anything but when sculpted by Le Jeune. Take his most famous composition, La bel’ aronde (‘The beautiful swallow’), in which five strophes of four lines are sung by four voices (these are called the chant) and alternate with a recurring refrain (the rechant). Ensemble Gilles Binchois beautifully capture the suppleness of Le Jeune’s setting, clearly mindful of the composer’s own advice that his music should be known ‘as if by heart’. There’s great warmth and care in this performance, both singers and plucked strings finding a brightness and lightness that complement the fluidity of these homophonic textures.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Aug 2020)

2 May 2020

Esquivel: Missa Hortus conclusus, Magnificat & motets

Esquivel: Missa Hortus conclusus, Magnificat & motets
De Profundis, Eamonn Dougan
Hyperion CDA68326

Juan Esquivel (c1560 before 1630) is another Spanish 16th-century polyphonist thus far denied the attention he deserves on record. First known to us as a choirboy in Ciudad Rodrigo near the Portuguese border, he trained under choirmaster Juan Navarro – one-time teacher of both Victoria and Vivanco – so if nothing else, his heritage is assured. This programme of his works is largely edited by Bruno Turner, who also provides the booklet note, and I should like to note Turner’s great achievement in bringing so much of this music to the attention of performers and their public. This disc comprises the Missa Hortus conclusus, a loose parody of a motet by Rodrigo de Ceballos (c1530-1581) performed first. The Mass is then interspersed with motets by Esquivel and ends with his setting of Alma redemptoris mater before the disc continues with a sequence of music for Vespers.

[...] From Hyperion’s point of view the sound is superb: warm and gently resonant. One intriguing feature of this performance is the double intonation on the Credo: in 16th-century Spain it was apparently common for this be heard twice as the Deacon cued the Celebrant, who would then proclaim the intonation to the congregation. Such details gesture towards liturgical verisimilitude, which combines with the passionate singing to create an extremely enjoyable and atmospheric recording.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (May 2020)

29 Mar 2020

Medieval Folk in the Revivals of David Munrow

Medieval Folk in the Revivals of David Munrow
Edward Breen
The Oxford Handbook of Music and Medievalism
Edited by Stephen C. Meyer and Kirsten Yri

This article explores the close relationship between medievalism, orientalism, and folk music in the work of early music revival pioneer David Munrow, director of the Early Music Consort of London from 1968 to 1976. The focus of this study is his last television work Ancestral Voices, a BBC series exploring myths and legends surrounding early instruments and tracing those associations through history. It also examines other popular genres prevalent on British television at the same time and suggests that through a focus on a constellation of myth, medievalism, and foreign ancestry, Ancestral Voices demonstrates a significant cultural allegiance to other key 1970s works.

28 Mar 2020

Salve, Salve, Salve

Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin’s Spanish Legacy
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
Signum SIGCD608

All roads lead to Josquin, even those routed through the Iberian Peninsula. This superb new recording from Owen Rees and Contrapunctus charts a key way in which Josquin’s influence continued to mushroom after his own prolific career by exploring ostinato technique—the repeated use of a musical motto as binding agent in the polyphonic texture—through motets by Morales (c.1500-1553) and Guerrero (1527/8-1599) alongside Victoria’s (c.1548-1611) broad and statuesque Missa Gaudeamus.


This same rising motto is found in the top voices of Victoria’s Missa Gaudeamus, an elongated, arching phrase which Rees links to Josquin’s language. More polished in this performance but slightly more reserved than the Lay Clerks of Westminster Cathedral / Matthew Martin (Hyperion CDA67748) the smouldering slow burn approach of Contrapunctus pays continued dividends throughout this mass. What is lost from the Westminster Cathedral performance in terms of vocal heft and sheer thrilling energetic uplift is gained in finesse and brilliant sheen. 


To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (April 2020)

1 Mar 2020


Les Cris de Paris and Geoffroy Jourdain
Harmonia Mundi HMM902632

Passions moved, passions shared, and the Passion of Christ on the Cross. This programme, a seemingly disparate selection of early Baroque Venetian works punctuated by five settings of the Crucifixus, looks like it shouldn’t work, yet in the hands of the musicologist and conductor Geoffroy Jourdain it is both compelling and rewarding. The second Harmonia Mundi album from Les Cris de Paris is so much more than a selection box: it blends ‘transcendentally inspired secular music and sacred music embodied in theatrical fashion’, exploring commonality between sacred and secular genres.


The Crucifixus settings are the highlight of this album and Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus a 10 is a particular standout. Readers will know this from Andrew Parrott’s searingly beautiful recording (Virgin/Erato) but Jourdain’s new performance rivals this for sheer dramatic impact. Whereas Parrott shone a spotlight on the sequence of mouth-watering suspensions in the upper voices, Jourdain undercuts this texture with a menacing continuo team whose percussive strumming evokes the nails on the Cross and provides a springboard for the voices to decry ‘passus et sepultus est’ (suffered and was buried) to devastating effect. Or perhaps Jourdain’s genius here was to follow it with the Entrata to Monteverdi’s Ballo delle ingrate. Strange bedfellows in theory but a superb transition in practice. This disc is a fine evocation of Baroque passions in every sense and one that keeps giving beyond the first few hearings. Absolutely not to be missed.

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (March 2020)

25 Jan 2020

Music for Milan Cathedral

Music for Milan Cathedral
Werrecore – Josquin – Gaffurius – Weerbeke
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
Delphian - DCD34224

This disc celebrates and contextualises the music of Hermann Matthias Werrecore (c1500-c1574) maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral for nearly three decades. A key figure in the post-Josquin (Josquin des Pres c1450-1521) generation, and one of many Oltremontani (from over the Alps) working in Northern Italy, his sacred works have not previously been recorded despite the quality and variety of his settings and their clear influence by, and homage to Josquin. Alongside six of his motets are also first recordings of works by Dominique Phinot (c1510-c1556) and Gaspar van Weerbeke (c1445- c1516).

The smooth honeyed sound of Siglo de Oro is largely due to the soft and clear sheen of their radiant sopranos. As an ensemble they resemble The Cardinall's Musick both in tone and in their approach to the architecture of larger-scale motets such as Josquin's Alma redemptoris mater / Ave regina caelorum: they choose unhurried tempos but maintain a clear forwards direction in phrasing. Most fascinating on this album are the contrasted settings of Inviolata, integra et casta by Werrecore and Josquin which show a huge attention to detail in performance. [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Feb 2020)

24 Jan 2020

Hellinck: Missa Surrexit pastor; Lupi: Te Deum & motets

Hellinck: Missa Surrexit pastor; Lupi: Te Deum & motets
The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68304

Forget the glamour of Hollywood's Rat Pack, the sixteenth century had a Wolf Pack of musicians whose names derive from the Latin 'Lupus'. The two composers on this disc may not be the best-known, but their music can be as suave and smooth as anything sung by "Ol' Blue Eyes" himself.

Lupus Hellinck's (1493/4-1541) five voice Missa Surrexit pastor bonus is based on a motet by the Andreas de Silva (fl.1520s). The textures are bright and spacious with delightful trio and duet sections punctuating the movements. This pairing of upper voices suits the generally bright and perky performance style of The Brabant Ensemble and I also admire the pacing: erring towards brisk, the proportions of the movements are clear and the false relations cheekily piquant. [...]

To read the full text of this article please visit www.gramophone.co.uk (Feb 2020)