John Quinn
MusicWeb International
April 2021

Francisco Guerrero spent much of his life associated in one way or another with Seville Cathedral. Peter Phillips tells us in the booklet essay that Guerrero was appointed as a ‘contralto’ singer there in 1542, when he would have been 15 or 16 years old. Eventually, he was appointed maestro de capilla at the cathedral in 1574, holding the post until his death. However, there were episodes in his life that were rather out of the ordinary for a cathedral musician. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1588 and, on his way home, spent several months in Venice, during which he supervised the publication of some of his music. Then, on his journey back to Seville his ship was captured by pirates and he was held to ransom. Undaunted by that experience, Guerrero planned another year-long absence to make a second pilgrimage in 1599; unfortunately for him, he delayed his departure and fell victim to an outbreak of plague in Seville.

Guerrero composed prolifically and his music was widely published not just in Spain but also in other European countries and in the New World. Despite this and despite the quality of his music, Peter Phillips believes that Guerrero has been unfairly overshadowed by Victoria. Phillips has done his bit to advance Guerrero’s cause in the past, recording some of his music with The Tallis Scholars. There’s a CD devoted entirely to the Spaniard’s music. That disc, which I’ve not heard, includes a couple of pieces that are on this new disc but there’s no significant overlap. Notwithstanding the presence of that earlier disc in the catalogue, it’s great that Phillips has taken the opportunity to record a number of pieces by Guerrero with a Spanish choir.

This is the second recording by El León de Oro that has come my way. Early in 2019 I was impressed with a programme of music by various composers which bore the title Amarae Morti. On that disc they were conducted solely by Peter Phillips, who is their Honorary Director. This time some of the pieces are under the direction of the choir’s Director, Marco Antonio García de Paz. The choir was established in 1997 and for this assignment 38 singers are listed (10/9/9/10).

The programme is well chosen. Much of it consists of polyphonic sacred music. In addition, though, the choir offers a selection from Guerrero’s collection of Canciones y vilanescas espirituales. These pieces were among the music published in Venice in 1589 and I discovered, from a bit of online research, that the collection numbers 61 pieces in total, of which five are recorded here. The five pieces in question are much simpler in design than the polyphonic music that occupies the rest of the disc. Peter Phillips says that Guerrero ‘saw nothing inappropriate in fitting music originally composed to secular texts with alternative sacred ones, and many such pieces appeared in the 1589 collection.’ As ever, Peter Phillips’ notes are admirable but I wish he’d told us a little bit more about the purpose of the Canciones. The texts that Guerrero set were all in Spanish; since the pieces were in the vernacular, would liturgical use have been allowed? The music is much more direct in style than his polyphonic compositions, so were the Canciones designed to be sung by good musicians but aimed at a popular audience?

The five pieces selected from the Canciones are the ones conducted by Marco Antonio García de Paz. I liked them all; they make a nice foil to the polyphonic material. Los reyes siguen la ‘strella is an SATB setting of an Epiphany text. The lilting music is most attractive. Sanctissima Maria is a Marian piece for SSAT. It’s sincere and appealing and the use of just the higher voices gives the music a bright, innocent sound. Si tus penas no pruevo is just for high voices (SSA) and is delicate and pure. Best of all is Mi ofensa’s grande. This is a setting of a penitential text for SSATB. The music is, I think, the richest among these five pieces and it includes some polyphonic passages. Were it not for the fact that the text is in the vernacular I would have assumed, if hearing it ‘blind’, that this is a motet. It’s a fine piece.

Peter Phillips directs the rest of the programme. All the music is high-quality. I very much enjoyed Ave virgo sanctissima. This is in five parts (SSATB) and Guerrero’s music flows in lovely intertwining lines, as is emphasised by the poise and clarity of this performance. One interesting aspect of Beatus Achacius oravit is the unfamiliar text. It’s a text associated with the Feast of St Achacius. His name was unknown to me but it seems his feast day was celebrated on 22 June. The music was written for male voices (ATTBarB) but since this choir’s altos are all ladies, we hear a female top line. There’s a nice roundness to the ladies’ tone and the darker hues of the lower voices complement the top line well. It’s a piece that I’d also be interested to hear with male altos on the top line. By contrast, Sancta et immaculata is for high voices only (SSSA); here, the ladies of El León de Oro produce a clear, airy sound that is most attractive.

Regina caeli a 8 is for two SATB choirs. It’s a joyful piece and this spirited performance sets the acoustic buzzing. Laudate Dominum de caelis is also for two choirs but here the disposition is rather different. One choir comprises SSAT and the other is SATB. I suspect that not all of the choir’s basses take part because to have had ten basses in one of the two choirs would have been unwieldy. As it is, the predominance of upper voices in Guerrero’s scoring adds extra brilliance to the choral sound. The choir gives an energetic, bright account of this celebratory piece. Incidentally, I mentioned earlier that Peter Phillips said that Guerrero’s music was widely disseminated in the New World. One example of this seems to be the Lamentations in which Guerrero set the first three verses of the Book of Lamentations. Apparently, the music was recently discovered in the library of Guatemala Cathedral: is that the sole source for this work, I wonder?

This is a most worthwhile overview of some of the music of Francisco Guerrero. All the music on the disc is expertly crafted and very well worth hearing. Guerrero’s cause is helped greatly by the fact that his music is here performed by such an accomplished choir: I admired their disciplined, well-focused singing very much.

The recording was not made in the same venue as the previous album. This time the chosen location, also in the choir’s home province of Asturias, is Iglesia del Real Monasterio de San Salvador de Cornellana, Salas. The church sounds to have a lovely, mellow acoustic. Engineer Dave Rowell has balanced the choir very successfully, taking advantage of the natural resonance without allowing that to blur the choir’s sound at all. The recording is entirely suitable for the music. Incidentally, the producer, Gabriel Crouch, plays an active part in one of the recordings: he acts as cantor to sing the plainchant passages in the Magnificat quarti toni and he does so very well.

Hyperion’s documentation is excellent, as usual. I must also compliment them on the generosity with which they’ve helpfully divided many of the pieces up into a number of tracks.

I hope the association between Hyperion and El León de Oro will continue beyond this excellent CD and its predecessor.