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Sacred treasures of Spain

Sacred motets from the Golden Age of Spanish polyphony
The London Oratory Schola Cantorum, Charles Cole (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: November 2017
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: November 2020
Total duration: 69 minutes 39 seconds

Cover artwork: The Virgin and Child (c1565) by Luis de Morales (c1509-1586)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid / © Photo Jesse / Bridgeman Images

Music to illustrate the Golden Age: a selection of motets from sixteenth-century Spain culminating in Alonso Lobo’s great funerary ode for Philip II, Versa est in luctum.

Please note: This album was briefly available on the AimHigher / DeMontfort Music label in 2019.


‘The Schola Cantorum are at home in the softer draping of Guerrero’s counterpoint, revelling in the gentle sensuality of his Ave virgo sanctissima and his lyrical O sacrum convivium’ (Gramophone)

‘This recording includes several of the most familiar, and finest, motets of the Spanish Renaissance sung, as the director is justifiably keen to point out in his notes, by a choir which has this music in its bones. This repertory is sung extensively by the choir, and its stylistic familiarity is evident right from the start … sitting listening to this sublime music in lockdown, one can almost believe that all is well in the world. Thank you to the singers, conductor, engineers and composers for providing some light in a dark world’ (Cathedral Music)» More

‘Cole and his polished ensemble—and Hyperion—spring many surprises. You would have to hunt to find Ribera, Esquivel, and Vivanco (sensationally sung) all on one disc. Melchor Robledo’s interspersed plainsong—was there ever a more tender Ad te clamamus?—are just perfect. The rest of the disc—exemplary Victoria included—is of the same quality’ (Church Times)

‘Today, the performance of the polyphony of the Renaissance is pretty much the domain of specialized vocal ensembles, which sing masses and motets as part of a concert in a church or even a modern concert hall. The majority of recordings also features such ensembles. However, around the globe there are choirs for which this repertoire is part of the liturgy. They sing this kind of music on a daily basis. One of such choirs is the Westminster Cathedral Choir, which has recorded frequently for Hyperion. The present disc is the second of another choir of this kind, The London Oratory Schola Cantorum … and a very fine choir it is. I enjoyed the Christmas disc, and I am just as happy with the present recording, also because I happen to have a special liking of Spanish polyphony. I hoped it would be served well by this disc, and it is. The singing is excellent, and shows a commitment which is undoubtedly the effect of the music's being the singers' daily bread. The pieces recorded here are treasures indeed, and so is this disc’ (MusicWeb International)

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Francisco Guerrero was a chorister at Seville, then maestro de capilla at Jaén Cathedral for a brief period before returning to Seville as assistant (during which time one of the choristers was the young Alonso Lobo), eventually taking over as maestro in 1574. Whilst returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he was twice captured and ransomed by pirates, a story detailed in an account he published about his journey to Jerusalem. The Regina caeli a 8 is a tightly woven and effusive setting of the Marian antiphon for Eastertide. Throughout, the motet alludes to the original chant in a kaleidoscopic presentation, using excerpts and fragments rather than a complete cantus firmus, as can be heard right at the outset where the first trebles initially follow the Gregorian melody before breaking free and joyously leaping upwards at ‘laetare’. O Domine Jesu Christe was written for Palm Sunday and strikes a more sombre vein, giving the impression that the composer has imposed self-restraint, yet nevertheless achieves great beauty. Two thirds of the way through, the sense of onward motion withdraws to give way to a hushed reverence for the text ‘deprecor te’. Ave virgo sanctissima was Guerrero’s most successful motet and was published in the furthest reaches of the Spanish Empire, as far away as Mexico and South America. The two treble parts sing in canon throughout, and at the word ‘Salve’ Guerrero quotes the iconic opening of the solemn ‘Salve regina’ in repeated ascending iterations. O sacrum convivium, a striking six-part setting of a Corpus Christi text, is perhaps one of the best examples of Guerrero’s consummate ability to draw out prolonged lines of extraordinary beauty. A sense of serene joy pervades the slow-moving harmonic landscape, with the internal parts moving in gentle submission. The final ‘Alleluia’ section features a distinctive melodic figure that uses three successive rising or descending thirds spanning the interval of a seventh, symbolizing the Trinity as divine perfection.

Bernardino de Ribera’s first major position was as maestro at Ávila Cathedral. Among his charges in the choir there were the young Tomás Luis de Victoria and Sebastián de Vivanco. Ribera went on to become maestro at Toledo Cathedral and then at Murcia Cathedral, where he had sung as a boy when his own father had been maestro. The six-part Dimitte me ergo seems on the surface to belie its desolate text, the music being written in a major mode. However, there is a tender sensitivity in the sparingly crafted lines, and at ‘ad terram tenebrosam’ the voices descend into the silent void.

Cristóbal de Morales was the most influential Spanish composer of his time, and a sign of the esteem in which he was held is demonstrated by the fact that Guerrero, Palestrina and Victoria all wrote works based on his own. Born in Seville, he was maestro at Ávila, then at Plasencia Cathedral, before departing for Rome where he sang in the Papal choir for ten years. On returning to Spain, he became maestro at Toledo before moving to his final position as maestro at Málaga Cathedral. Peccantem me quotidie is a powerfully vivid setting of a penitential text containing brief moments of polyphonic writing but ultimately always returning to earthbound homophonic movement. The steady descent of the parts at ‘in inferno’ is contrasted with the freely rising quavers at ‘et salva me’.

Melchor Robledo sang at the Royal Chapel in Granada before being appointed maestro de capilla at Tarragona Cathedral, and subsequently at Zaragoza. This extensive setting of the Salve regina alternates polyphony with the solemn ‘Salve’ chant, using the version in common usage in Spain during the sixteenth century, here taken from Luis de Villafranca’s plainsong instruction book, published in Seville in 1565. The two outer polyphonic sections are in six parts, while the inner section (track 9) uses just the four upper parts. Robledo’s approach to the harmonic contradictions that sometimes arise as a result of the modality is to allow space for both, giving rise occasionally to distinctive and colourful moments.

Juan Esquivel—or Esquivel [de] Barahona as he was sometimes known, in accordance with the Spanish custom of adding his mother’s family name—was prebendary and chapelmaster at the Cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo, where he had been a chorister as a child. For much of his career, his patron was Don Pedro Ponce de León, the Dominican Bishop of Ciudad Rodrigo. Esquivel based a number of parody Masses on motets by Guerrero, who was clearly a respected influence. Ego sum panis vivus is a concise yet beautifully rendered setting of a Corpus Christi text, concluding with a joyful ‘Alleluia’.

In addition to singing together as boys in the choir at Ávila, Sebastián de Vivanco and Tomás Luis de Victoria both went on to the seminary. Vivanco held three cathedral positions: at Segovia, Ávila and finally Salamanca. It is interesting to note that when a statue of Saint Teresa of Ávila was commissioned during the nineteenth century by the people of Ávila to mark her 300th anniversary, the names of other historical Ávilans of note were inscribed on the pedestal. Vivanco, not Victoria, was the only musician included, giving us a sense of the esteem in which he was still held. Dulcissima Maria is a highly expressive motet in honour of Our Lady.

Following his choristership at Ávila Cathedral, Victoria later travelled to Rome to study for the priesthood. After ordination, he lived for a time with St Philip Neri, forming a lasting relationship with St Philip’s Oratory. After some years in Rome, he returned to his native Spain as chaplain to King Philip II’s sister, the Empress María, at the Descalzas Reales in Madrid where he was also chapelmaster. Of the two settings of the ‘Hail Mary’ accredited to Victoria, no Renaissance sources exist of the popular Ave Maria a 4, so we cannot be confident of its authenticity, despite it commonly being ascribed to the composer. The Ave Maria a 8, certainly by Victoria, sets an extended version of the text. The double choirs, initially deployed antiphonally, combine to create rich and sonorous textures. O quam gloriosum, a motet for All Saints, was written during Victoria’s time in Rome, when he was organist at the Aragonese church, Santa Maria di Monserrato. Famed for its verve and drive, this popular motet’s unrelenting energy pauses only briefly at ‘amicti stolis albis’ as the righteous are clothed for heaven.

Alonso Lobo began his musical career as a chorister and later as assistant to Guerrero at Seville Cathedral. He was then appointed maestro at Toledo Cathedral before returning to serve in the same position at Seville for the remainder of his years. Versa est in luctum was written upon the death of Philip II and is considered to be one of the masterworks of the period—a fitting tribute to a Catholic king and patron of this golden era. And perhaps O quam suavis est, a ravishing six-part setting of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s text, could be considered Lobo’s own crowning glory of the Siglo de Oro.

Charles Cole © 2020

Sacred treasures of Spain, the second in our series of recordings of liturgical music, celebrates the extraordinary creative output of composers working during the Siglo de Oro. Philip II’s reign during the second half of the sixteenth century was truly a golden age in terms of the amazing wealth of riches which emerged at the hands of the greatest composers working in Catholic Spain. This recording represents a handful of these composers, all in some way interconnected, and in particular focuses on the two liturgical powerhouses of Philip II’s kingdom: the cathedrals of Seville and Toledo. All the motets featured here are drawn from the Schola’s repertory and are sung in the context of the liturgy at the London Oratory.

Music played an important role at St Philip Neri’s first Oratory in Rome, both in the regular liturgy and also in the musical oratories which were pioneered there, combining readings, meditations and music as an aid to prayer. The Chiesa Nuova, where the Roman Oratory ultimately became established, drew in the young and fostered their faith. We aim to continue this mission, immersing the boys of the Schola in this repertory which so perfectly expresses truth, and we are delighted to be able to share this music and its higher purposes with a wider audience.

Charles Cole © 2020

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