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CD Review

From Spain to Eternity

The Sacred Polyphony of El Greco's Toledo

  • Alonso Lôbo:
  • Versa est in luctum
  • Missa "Prudentes virgines"
  • Ave, Regina coelorum
  • Cristóbal de Morales:
  • Clamabat autem mulier Chananea
  • Quanti mercenarii
  • Expandit Sion manus suas
  • Francisco Guerrero: Prudentes virgines
  • Alonso de Tejeda:
  • Rex autem David
  • Miserere Mei, Deus
Ensemble Plus Ultra
Archiv 4792610
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Concept albums in classical music are like pigeons in Central Park; they all look the same, and you could probably go your whole life without seeing another one. But sometimes, a label does something so innovative, and so well, that you have to stop and listen. From Spain to Eternity: The Sacred Polyphony of El Greco's Toledo is one such album. Beautifully recorded and ingeniously themed, the program celebrates 400 years since the death of the great artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as "El Greco" (The Greek). The composers here all worked in Toledo, Spain around the peak of El Greco's career in that part of the world, and the notes try their best to tie all these men together. It may or may not work for you.

Even if you disregard the concept, the music is incredible. Ensemble Plus Ultra has already shown an unquestionable affinity for early vocal music in previous releases on Archiv, and they are terrific here. The label has always had success recording Spanish polyphony, and these gifted young musicians continue a record of excellence in a way that makes me look forward to their next release. From the brief Tejeda motets (effortless and haunting) to the sweetly flowing one from Francisco Guerrero, each piece is lovingly sung and recorded. Morales is also a major presence here, his massive Expandit Sion manus suas is a gem of a lamentation, and lingers in the ear with inventive harmonics and purity of sound.

But it is Alonso Lôbo who gets the lion's share of the program, crowned by a delicious half-hour Missa "Prudentes virgines". Starting with a soaring, expertly-crafted Kyrie (the only part of the mass sung in Greek), the surprisingly lyrical and contemplative setting contrasts with some of the more extroverted masses of the age, notably a few from Guerrero. Lôbo focuses more on individual vocals, each mass part is like a motet in itself. The singing is wonderful, dynamically expressive and wholly idiomatic. Lôbo also bookends the release; with a gloriously built motet to whet the appetite, and a delightful Marian antiphon to close. Full texts are provided, and the value of this release overall is very high. A must for vocal fans.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman