Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
April 2020

In 2009 I was involved with Clive Walkley and an early music group in the North-West of England in a performance of his edition Esquivel’s Missa Pro Defunctis, which had been preceded by an illustrated lecture on the composer. In fairness I didn’t find much in the piece to impress me. But what was especially striking was a photograph of a library in a Spanish Cathedral stacked high with leather bound books containing what seemed like acres of manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet to be even looked at, let alone catalogued, scholars were gripped by the prospect of discovering which composers and works were still lying hidden away.

Esquivel has rarely been recorded but several of his works turned up forty or more years ago and it has been discovered that he was extraordinarily prolific. Wanting to see this rather secretive world for myself we decided, when driving in Spain in 2012, to visit the beautiful 12th and 13th Century Cathedral at Cuidad Rodrigo where the composer was born and then spent much of his later life. I advise you to go online where there are excellent photographs of the somewhat curious choir stalls (c.1500) which Esquivel and his choir would have used. The spacious cloisters are of a similar date. On our visit we were glad to flee from the June heat and only heard the organ but the whole, shadowy, cathedral exudes a flavour of deep devotion. Via this CD I have been similarly moved, aided and abetted by some very fine singing from this all male choir noted, especially here, for its excellent diction and superb tuning.

The Cathedral custodian, after some persuasion from my schoolboy Spanish, allowed us to view the musty library with its ancient printed books and decaying manuscripts scattered haphazardly on the distant shelves. Esquivel published three volumes containing Hymns, Psalms, Magnificat, Marian antiphons, and a book of Motets some of these I fancied, lay tattered just out of my reach.

The dark hues contrasted with brighter streaks of sun through the richly painted glass which I remember from that visit can also be heard in the music with the gloriously shining major of the Regina Caeli and the Ave Regina caelorum contrasted with the mystery of a motet like the Alma Redemptoris mater.

Esquivel himself enables this rich tonal quality in several works by writing for two antiphonal choirs as in the Sancta Maria and the Salve Regina. This trick he could have picked up during his brief sojourn in Oviedo Cathedral in the 1580’s or later, proving that he was well aware of techniques filtering in from Italy.

More traditionally the Magnificat, Te lucis and the Salve Regina are written as to be sung ‘in alternatum’ with the odd numbered verses given to the plainchant on which the polyphony is based.

The CD is set out almost as if you were attending Mass and the setting chosen is a four-part parody Mass on Rodrigo de Caballos’s Motet Hortus Conclusus a very beautiful work, setting a text from the extraordinary Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The Kyrie is preceded by two motets Esquivel’s Regina caeli and the Caballos. In between the mass propers including, unusually, Esquivel’s concluding setting of the Ite Missa est. The motets chosen that fall within the mass setting have appropriate texts for example Ego sum panis vivus.

After that we have other motets and the last tracks include a Magnificat and a Salve Regina and these form a part of the Vespers and Compline services. The Magnificat is richly scored and builds in complex polyphony; the Nunc Dimittis is simpler, homophonic and more suitable for late night devotions.

The Spanish music from this period requires a particularly intense tone and, often, a dark hue and the twenty-two voices, no matter what the combination, achieve this every time. Conductor Eamonn Dougan has included, as was not uncommon in Renaissance Spain, a Bajón—a sort of bassoon—to add richness to the bass line. However it is often not really audible.

The recording was made in a church on the outskirts of Cambridge which I know well and I think has one of the very best acoustics for choral works as proven here. I feel sure that this could well be a disc that will achieve awards.