A pair of very rare sacred works, one by a well-known prolific composer of instrumental works not associated with sacred choral works, the other by a composer whose name will not have been known to many readers here, your reviewer included. This is a re-issue on Hyperion's budget Helios line; the original release was reviewed very favourably on these pages.
Boccherini's flamboyant style, as evidenced in his guitar quintets, is not in evidence here. This is sparely scored, and the vocal contributions are limited to the three soloists, Gritton, Fox and Agnew, solo and in various combinations. It is not clear what prompted his excursion into sacred music, though the work is undoubtedly influenced by the famous Pergolesi setting, employing the same key of F minor. The original 1781 version was for solo soprano only, the later revision expanding the vocal corps. The standout movements are the soprano duet 'Eia mater' and the closing trio Quando corpus morietur.
d'Astorga was known for his vocal music, but the circumstances behind the composition of this work are even more shrouded in mystery than the Boccherini. Even the date is unknown; the only certainty is that it predates Pergolesi's. If you wish to know what little there is known of his life, apparently a rather wild one, I commend you to the Hyperion page for this release, but I will quote Robert King's excellent notes 'in the eighteenth century a musical nobleman, during the nineteenth century a folk hero, and in the twentieth-oblivion'. The work is scored for SATB soloists and choir. Again the Eia mater appeals but here it is a choral setting. The final movement is relatively upbeat, in contrast to the bittersweet stillness that ends the Boccherini.
The instrumental contribution of the seven players is relatively limited, but always impeccable. The sound quality is excellent, intimate and immediate but without the common distraction of inhalations and sniffs that often come from overly close miking.
In 1999, recordings of these two works must have been thin on the ground. There are half a dozen or so of the Boccherini now, but most seem to be more recent, while the d'Astorga has a couple of other recordings. Given the budget price, this is a winning combination.