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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,
Texts and translations included SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD338 [69:33]
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
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
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] Thomas TALLIS In jejunio et fletu [4:54] Salvator mundi [2:50] Pedro DE CRISTO Inter vestibulum [2:33] William BYRD Infelix ego [13:34]