There’s no shortage of material to add to an already huge discography of Renaissance polyphony. This seemingly disparate collection of Franco-Flemish and Iberian composers has been compiled by Peter Phillips (of the Tallis Scholars) in his capacity as honorary director of El León de Oro founded two decades ago in Asturias; this is its first recording for Hyperion.
The traversal of Lenten and Marian devotional texts includes three sets of Lamentations by Phinot, Lassus and Cardoso, Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni and settings of Regina caeli by Lassus, Victoria and Palestrina. With the exception of Dominique Phinot, the composers are all household names. In his booklet note Phillips suggests Phinot’s splendid double choir Lamentations is the first of its kind to use cori spezzati effects beyond the simple recitation of Psalms. This relatively unfamiliar version may be this release’s best-selling asset for it is a richly sonorous piece and provides ample reason for further listening—notwithstanding strong competition from The Brabant Ensemble (also Hyperion) and Sospiri (Naxos). A generous acoustic brings warmth of tone to El León de Oro, yet a certain distance blurs the solidity of Phinot’s magnificent choral exchanges, and the first double choir entry doesn’t stop you in your tracks. That said, this is glorious music that unfolds with commitment.
Lamentations from Lassus and Cardoso (five and six voices, respectively) are not lacking in drama and while the Lassus is more diverse in its treatment, word-painting in both is relished, if not necessarily conveying any great sense of loss at the destruction of Jerusalem. Another Lenten text, Media vita, is presented in two versions: Gombert fuels the 'bitterness of death' with startling false relations while Lassus develops soaring lines and one superb ‘hand-wringing’plea from the sopranos to make this one of the composer’s most distinctive Motets.
The group’s thirty-three voices make a fair stab at the sprung rhythms in Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni and, while not as varied in its pacing or as electrically-charged as that from the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge and George Guest (Decca) they bring alive its lavish sonorities. El León de Oro’s youthful enthusiasm glows in Victoria’s Regina caeli—the most ambitious of the three settings here, and gives a flowing, sedate account; it’s just a shame that Phillips puts the brakes on for the one-in-a-bar 'alleluias' to disrupt the pulse. A similar fervour can be heard in Palestrina’s Laudate pueri in which the choir meets head-on the joyful appeals of the Psalmist.
All in all, this is a commendable selection sung with considerable accomplishment, and the booklet includes texts and translations.