Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
March 2021

How I would have loved to have met Francisco Guerrero, not only for his calm, poised and yet often passionate music, but for what one reads about him and can glean from his own words when he travelled, bravely for his time, to the Holy Land in 1588 from his home in Seville where he was ‘maestro de capilla’. I remember recording many years ago a reading, by Robert Hardy I think, of extracts from Guerrero’s book El viage de Hierusalem. More recently, I found some extracts in a library. The sections on his experience with pirates and his incarceration are especially riveting.

The disc is also noteworthy because of Peter Phillips’s obvious excitement at directing a Spanish choir in this music; the group, nearly forty of them, are pictured in the booklet. Even if they have all been involved in the recording, the sound is never heavy. The venue was a monastery in Asturias built in the 11th Century. Phillips conducts the entire disc except the five Canciones y villanescas espirtuales. Those are, I suppose, sacred madrigals, or more correctly secular music tailored to sacred texts; the choir’s director Marco Antonio García de Paz takes over with superb stylistic understanding.

In fairness, the chosen acoustic is not as it would have been in the vastness of Seville cathedral, which was completed by 1507, before Guerrero was born. But the recording team of Dave Rowell and Gabriel Crouch have given us a sound which is not too close and offers a sense of space around the voices. It must be admitted that some of the text is consequently lost but it might have been even less distinct in the cathedral. When I visited it for a service during the Christmas season of 2018, the choir seemed to be coming from another planet.

Very often, a disc of Guerrero’s music will include a Mass; this one deliberately offers a more rounded view of a composer known to be versatile and varied. We begin with a Magnificat sung ‘alternatum’ with plainchant. This highlights Guerrero’s ability to write elegant and singable lines which sound simple and natural. It is an early work, as is the justly famed Ave virgo sanctissima (first published 1566 and reprinted in 1597). The top two parts are perfectly canonic at the unison, and the lower ones are closely imitative. The effect is of subtle but great beauty. Another motet to the virgin is Sancta et immaculate, written touchingly for just upper voices, three sopranos and an alto.

Guerrero had been a pupil of Morales. The closely knit, imitative style cultivated by his generation (which also included Gombert) can be clearly detected in Beatus Achacius oravit, another early work in honour of a rather obscure saint.

Suitable for Passiontide would be the moving motet Hei mihi, Domine, and of course the succinct Lamentations, which just takes five verses from Chapter 1 of that book. Each verse of every piece is given its own track on the disc. That is on the whole very helpful but just be careful when you set up the programming.

Contrary in mood are the two closing motets, the eight-part Regina Caeli, a gentle hymn to the Queen of Heaven and the psalm setting Laudate Dominum, a joyous motet for two choirs used in a ‘cori spezzati’ style, with the second choir interjecting ‘laudate eum’ at the phrase ends.

The last five pieces, on twelve tracks, are from the aforementioned Canciones y villanescas espirituales published in Venice in 1589. The Spanish texts are madrigalian in musical language. The five verses of Los reyes siguen la ‘strella are in a gently compound time (‘The wise men follow the star, the star follows the Lord’), in a largely, and unusually, homophonic piece. The wonderfully expressive Sanctissima Maria is set for SSAT, and the only one selected here, which includes the bass voice, is the more solemn Mi Ofensa’s grande. Antes que comáis a Dios (Before you eat the Lord in this sacred meal) is mostly in a lilting triple time, sung here very affectionately. Si tus penas no pruevo, just for sopranos and altos, is in three parts and could easily be a madrigal (some by Guerrero do survive). Some wonderfully cool Spanish courtyard is evoked in my imagination.

Peter Phillips in his notes writes: ‘An album of Guerrero, sung by Spaniards, which not only shows off his best sacred music, but also puts some of his secular writing in the frame, has long been overdue.’ That alone is a reason to acquire this disc. Moreover, the choir’s sound is perfectly fine, the intonation is reliable, the balance good, without any annoying vibrato. You get a strong passion and commitment to the music.