I would like to have known Francisco Guerrero. He wrote lovingly about his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1589. He was kidnapped by pirates, had to pay a large ransom, and later landed in a debtor’s prison. Even so, he seems to have been warm-hearted and caring. This especially emerges in the sheer humanity of his music, and in the deep emotions he can often communicate. The Brabant Ensemble communicates much of that wonderfully.
Yet, Guerrero is less well known than, say, Victoria or even Morales. Conductor Stephen Rice writes in his booklet essay that it may be because of Guerrero’s texts. For example, Gaude Barbara sets a very rare text for this third-century saint. Her feast day falls on December 4th and she is little remembered in the Protestant church. But this fine and joyous work makes a good pipe-opener. Likewise, the surprisingly jubilant motet Simile est regnum caelorum takes a lengthy passage from St. Matthew about the workers in the vineyard, and has the words tumble about in complex polyphony. This might also apply to the slightly more sombre Ductus est Jesus, a Lenten motet on a text about one of Jesus’s temptations. In this well characterised and brought out performance, the voice of the devil exclaims ‘If thou be the son of God, command these stone be made bread’.
I remember a pupil telling me how tedious renaissance polyphony is: it seemed to him to be so inexpressive. Perhaps that was performance practice forty years ago. If he heard Guerrero’s Ave Maria (recorded by The Cardinall’s Musick for Hyperion, CDA67836) or, on this disc, the motet Peccantem me quotidie to another unusual text, and felt unmoved, then he would have to be quite hard-hearted. The melting suspensions and dissonances are quite remarkable.
Clearly, it is the Mass Ecce sacerdos magnus that takes centre-stage on this recording. It is in five parts, and was published in Rome in 1582. Guerrero often travelled there to supervise the publication of his works. Unusually, the plainsong melody is sung to its own text ‘Behold a great priest, who in his day pleased God and was found to be just’. This is particularly audible in the Sanctus. The Mass, on fourteen tracks here, lasts just under half an hour. It is very much in major modes. The Gloria is a good example of the quality of the music. Straightforward homophonic writing at the start and often elsewhere is contrasted with imitative passages which never overburden the texture. The plainchant is also never far away, especially in the inner parts. Another beautiful homophonic passage can be heard, not surprisingly perhaps, in the Credo at ‘Et incarnatus’.
The programme ends, a little prosaically, with a somewhat ordinary setting of the Magnificat sung in alternatim. All along, The Brabant Ensemble is up to their most expressive best. They sing with faultless tuning and generally excellent diction, although one might feel in parts of the mass that they are going through the motions in the less interesting sections.
All texts are provided, and Stephen Rice’s detailed notes are an absolute model of their kind, so do follow them through as you listen. The acoustic at All Saint’s East Finchley is highly suitable, and suits the music perfectly.