Stephen Midgley Reply to on 28 December 2013
|This is a fine collection of motets by Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553), Spanish renaissance composer of the post-Josquin generation. The works are all settings of Christmas-related texts including the Immaculate Conception, Annunciation and Nativity. Morales was widely travelled, enjoyed a considerable reputation in his time, and was especially successful in applying and synthesising Spanish, Italian and Franco-Flemish elements - of which the latter were the most widely practised and admired - in his music. He was thus one of the first truly "European" composers, and the works on the present CD offer ample evidence of his cosmopolitan style.
The fourteen motets in this programme are all lovely, contemplative, finely-textured works, mostly of 4 to 6 parts; they are performed here with beautifully finished care, style and precision by the eight singers of Weser-Renaissance, directed by Manfred Cordes and singing mainly one-voice-per-part with a handful of 2VPP exceptions. The singers are Franz Vitzthum and Alex Potter (descant); Terry Wey (countertenor); Bernd O. Fröhlich, Jan van Elsacker and Hermann Oswald (tenor); Kees Jan de Koning and Ulfried Staber (bass). Six of these eight performers also took part in the group's marvellous Josquin disc Desprez: Missa Ave Maris Stella (CPO: 777590-2), and each one is a voice of the highest quality with not a weak link to be heard. They produce an ideal vocal blend and balance, they have mastered the demands of renaissance polyphony as well as any other ensemble I know, and their singing is as close to technically perfect as you could imagine. In fact, on first hearing, I thought that the singing was almost too polished, too perfect to carry the necessary conviction, but after further listening I found I was able to hear beyond the carefully finished surface and appreciate all the more the inner content of the music. Initially their approach sounds less passionate than that of some other fine renaissance ensembles; but the commitment is there, carefully judged and controlled though it is and, moreover, greatly enhanced by the distinctive, crystal-clear sound of the individual voices in a recorded ambience that is both lucid and atmospheric.
As for the works themselves, there are many very fine things here, and in fact almost half the works are not available in other recordings as far as I can tell. The opening item, the ethereal 4-part "O magnum mysterium", beautifully expresses hushed mystery and the wonder of those witnessing the Nativity. For "Puer natus est nobis" (6), the 3-part simplicity of the texture is especially lovely, followed by the contrasting, predominantly low-voiced "Pastores dicite" (7). The two following works, "Exaltata est Sancta Dei Genitrix" and "Salva Regina" (8 and 9), both benefit from the added richness of their 2VPP performances here.
The programme culminates in an utterly beautiful 5-part work which I had never heard until now. "Cum natus esset Iesus" is a more substantial, varied and discursive piece than the other works here, telling the story of Herod and the three Magi from Matthew 2: 1-12. It receives a perfectly-paced, wonderfully sensitive performance from Manfred Cordes' ensemble, and I would have no hesitation in saying that every fan of renaissance polyphony would do well to treat themselves to at least one hearing of this stunning piece.
The CD booklet notes outline Morales' career and his place in music history reasonably well but the writer gives us little information or musical commentary on the actual works recorded here, instead discussing at some length the religious function of their texts. But this shortcoming is a minor matter compared to the very fine music and performances offered. Why four stars, then, and not five? Well, for me, it's because there is a distinct lack of contrast in this sequence of motets, and so a certain feeling of sameness characterises the programme. Some listeners, therefore, may well find that they don't feel like taking in the whole disc at one sitting, which rather negates the advantage of the CD format in bringing us up to 80 minutes of music in one go. This is a shame, and what's more it could quite easily have been avoided by some judicious choices and decisions such as many other producers and ensembles have succeeded in applying to their equivalent early music programmes.
All the same, the music of this CD brings us an unfamiliar but welcome approach to the more contemplative aspects of the Christmas message, transporting the listener as far as can be from the world of jingle-bells, fairy lights and seasonal round robins. As a collection of some of the composer's loveliest, and in most cases little-known music, the disc is a valuable addition to the catalogues and, just in case you missed the point I mentioned earlier, is well worth acquiring for that splendid final "Cum natus esset Iesus" alone.