Cristóbal de Morales: Magnificat, Motets, Lamentations

The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice (Hyperion CDA67694)

7 October 2008 4 stars

MoralesTo the ever growing repertoire of intelligently-crafted and delicately given recorded recitals of Renaissance polyphony can be added this release, in which Stephen Rice and his Brabant Ensemble perform some less-heralded music from the great Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales.

Boasting the first complete recording of the Magnificat primi toni, this is an accomplished disc that displays well the distinguished abilities of the ensemble, and the originary power of the composer as a precedent for a century’s worth of Spanish eminence in sacred composition.  

The unanimity of shape and effortless beauty of tone with which this release is filled is clear from the off, where the sublime gossamer wordless opening to the first of the Lamentations, Coph Vocavi, builds into a never-changing round of gentle, devout, sung prayer. Stephen Rice brings a sort of sensuousness to the shaping of each of the phrases that means the highly intellectual basis of much of the writing (in terms of the adherence to the rules of stile antico part writing)is always imbued with a directness of expression befitting to such a flexible voice as underlies this music.

This sort of impression of prostrate, collective worship continues into the second two Lamentations. There the uniquely satisfying blend of the voices of the ensemble pulls one in even further into the sound, and the gentle hints of dynamic shape often carved out by Rice serve quite well to overcome any homogeneity of execution that might trouble otherwise. The suggestion of emerging light that gradually grows out of the beginning of Nun. Vigilavit is a good indicator of the sort of sensitivity to text and to chiaroscuro nuance that Rice employs.The ability of the singers to draw back at phrase endings, to maintain precision of intonation and balance whilst invoking a motion of modesty, is consistently pleasing in these three canticles.      

Things continue in much the same vein into the six Motets, though contrast of mood and texture are most welcome in the more burnished and bright Gaude & Laetare, the alternately chant-like and then wonderfully sibilant Salva Regina, and the sublime expansiveness of Spem in Alium. The concluding passages of the latter, especially, are a highpoint of the disc, where all the finesse and devotion of the interpretations achieve a sort of splendid, serene sanctity. The more madrigal-like texture of Beati Omnes are grist to the mill for this flexible group, who make the busier, more rhythmically-differentiated imitations of the writing appear as an effective interlude before the comparative aesthetic extension of the concluding work, the Magnificat primi toni.

The Magnificat is given an emotionally powerful, dynamically intricate profile by Rice, who directs his singers towards the warmth of the writing, and to a clear exposition of the intense piety of the text. There is an exquisite intelligence at play in this performance, and the deliberate expressivity and shape given to the interweaving lines leaves one utterly, consistently impressed. The tuning, as it has been heretofore, is impeccable.

The passion and power of Morales as a sacred voice is clear in every sinew of this new release, and anyone interested in Renaissance polyphony is urged to pursue it. The only note of criticism I would raise, however, is that this sort of highly-elevated, intellectually realised mode of choral singing has recently become the sole standard-bearer for performance aesthetics of renaissance choral music.

Whilst in the hands of groups like the Tallis Scholars and the Brabant Ensemble this type of approach yields magnificent, captivating recordings, it would certainly be fascinating to hear a markedly different style of interpretation in this sort of music; surely the notes, as with all musical texts, portend much more than is revealed here? That said, this is of course a wonderful, wonderful release of music of great beauty, and splendour

By Stephen Graham