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Libera nos - The Cry of the Oppressed
Track listing below review
Contrapunctus (Esther Brazil, Amy Moore, Roya Stuart-Rees, Katie Trethewey (soprano), Rory McCleery, Matthew Venner (alto), Benedict Hymas, Andrew McAnerney (tenor), Greg Skidmore, Giles Underwood (bass))/Owen Rees
rec. 26-29 November 2012, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, UK. DDD
Texts and translations included

The title of this disc is an indication of what is to be expected: motets of a mostly gloomy character. Such pieces are often the most beautiful, and this disc bears witness to that. The programme is full of masterpieces by English and Portuguese composers. This combination of motets from two entirely different traditions may surprise. However, it is the disc's title which holds the sequence together: they "express the plight of Catholics in England and of the Portuguese under Spanish rule in the late 16th and early 17th centuries", as Owen Rees writes in the booklet. 

We should not forget that this is his interpretation of the music. There can be little doubt that texts from the Bible or non-biblical sources from long ago can be used - and have beeen used in the course of history - to express the feelings of individuals or the collective. However, it is often hard to be sure whether that was the case. If one looks at the track-list one will see that many titles are quite common. These texts were set by various composers during the renaissance and often also in later centuries. Many of them are biblical or liturgical. This means that the very fact that a composer uses them cannot of itself be taken as an indication that they express his personal feelings. It is quite possible that motets by William Byrd, which were sung during secret Catholic worship in private chapels, were interpreted by the worshippers as an expression of their personal feelings about their situation. That doesn't necessarily mean that the composer wrote those motets with that particular purpose. Owen Rees goes pretty far out on a limb by suggesting that a passage from the text of Plorans ploravit could refer to James I and his wife Anne of Denmark: "Say to the king, and to her that rules: Be humbled, sit down, because the crown of your glory is come down from your head".
Equally a matter of interpretation, rather than based on firm historical evidence, is his view that the motets by the Portuguese composers Pedro de Cristo and Manuel Cardoso are expressions of the feelings of the Portuguese about their loss of independence and their suffering under Spanish rule. Rees refers to the 'Sebastianism', the belief in a national saviour who would restore the country to its former glory. He sees these feelings "vividly evoked" in Pedro de Cristo's motet Lachrimans sitivit anima mea. Again, one cannot exclude that it was meant this way, but it is hard to prove. The connection between music and the current situation of the composer or his audience may claim a large amount of plausibility, but that is not the same as evidence.
Let's turn to the music. Some pieces may be quite familiar: in particular the pieces by Byrd and Tallis are frequently performed. Performing them within the concept of this disc lends them a different dimension, even without the references to politics. It allows the listener to compare the way various composers have set texts of a comparable content. Rees' notes point out the devices which the composers used to shed light on specific passages. One of these devices is the alternation of polyphony and homophony. The end of Byrd's monumental Infelix ego which - after a pause - focuses on the phrase "Miserere mei, Deus" is a striking example. He does the same in the second phrase from Civitas sancti tui: "Sion deserta facta est": Sion has become a wilderness. Tallis uses homophony to single out "Parce, Domine" (Spare, O Lord) in In jejunio et fletu.
'False relations' were part of polyphonic writing in England in the 16th century, and several motets on this disc bear witness to that. In the music written at the Iberian peninsula this was much rarer. The Portuguese pieces on this disc are from a much later date than the English compositions. There are some daring harmonies in Sitivit anima mea by Manuel Cardoso. Martin Peerson also belongs to a later generation than Byrd. There is a stronger connection between text and music and a more direct illustration of the text. Laboravi in gemitu shows the influence of the contemporary madrigal. The word "lacrimis" (tears) is vividly depicted by the lively rhythms.
The motet by Philippus de Monte is a bit of an outsider in this programme: he was neither English nor Portuguese but a late representative of the Franco-Flemish school and worked for many years at the service of the Habsburg emperors in Vienna and Prague. His motet Super flumina Babylonis has been included for a reason. There seems to be a connection between this motet and Byrd's Quomodo cantabimus. De Monte sets the verses one to four from Psalm 136 (137), Byrd verses four to seven. These two motets are found in the same source, and the presence of De Monte's motet could be the result of his visit to England in 1554-55 as a member of the chapel of Prince Philip of Spain. Byrd's motet could be a direct reaction to De Monte's motet. Both pieces are scored for eight voices, but the composers use this scoring quite differently. De Monte splits the voices into two groups, which results in a clearer audibility of the text. This reflects the tendency towards a closer connection between text and music at the end of the 16th century. It is also an answer to the wishes of the Council of Trent that texts should be given more attention in liturgical music. Byrd, on the other hand, creates a dense polyphonic texture which makes the text much harder to understand. As a musical structure his motet is nonethelss quite impressive.
The ensemble Contrapunctus was founded in 2010 and this is their first disc. They could hardly have made a better debut. The singing is superb: the voices are beautiful and their blending is perfect, without ever losing their individual character. One of the strenghts is the excellent balance within the ensemble: here the sopranos do not dominate, and the lower end has good presence. There is no hint of a wobble in the lower voices. When the text is to be clearly understood, the singers make that happen. Owen Rees is not afraid of some pretty strong dynamic shading, such as in Cardoso's motet. The programme includes a number of well-known pieces, but also some neglected jewels. That includes the reconstruction of Tallis's Libera nos which is mostly performed instrumentally as only the incipit of the text is known. The 'political' interpretation may be questionable, but the compilation of pieces with its rather gloomy accent makes this programme attractive. The texts may not spread happiness but the singing can hardly fail to please.
Johan van Veen

Track Listing
William BYRD (1540-1623)

Civitas sancti tui [5:02]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Libera nos [2:08]
Philippus DE MONTE (1521-1603)
Super flumina Babylonis [5:41]
William BYRD
Quomodo cantabimus [8:38]
Manuel CARDOSO (1566-1650)
Sitivit anima mea [4:22]
Martin PEERSON (c.1572-1651)
Laboravi in gemitu meo [5:29]
William BYRD
Miserere mei Deus [3:20]
Pedro DE CRISTO (c.1550-1618)
Lachrimans sitivit anima mea [5:54]
William BYRD
Plorans plorabit [5:07]
In jejunio et fletu [4:54]
Salvator mundi [2:50]
Inter vestibulum [2:33]
William BYRD
Infelix ego [13:34]