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CD Review

Francisco Guerrero

Arsis 113
  • Cristóbal de Morales: Simile est regnum caelorum
  • Francisco Guerrero:
  • Missa Simile est regnum coelorum
  • Alma Redemptoris Mater
  • Ave Regina coelorum
  • Regina coeli
  • Missa de la batalla escoutez *
Church of the Advent Choir/Edith Ho
* Church of the Advent Choir/Mark Dwyer
Arsis CD113
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This is another desirable recording from specialists in Renaissance polyphony, the Choir of the Church of the Advent, in Boston, Massachusetts, under their then director, Edith Ho, and Mark Dwyer. Perhaps it is because the Choir uses music from this epoch as part of its regular liturgy and has done for over 150 years that their performance is so utterly natural, unforced and immediate. While not in any way lacking inspirational color and thrust, there is an almost conversational tone to Francisco Guerrero's (1528-1599) Missa Simile est regnum coelorum in particular. Certainly a highly communicative and approachable one. A lightness of touch and gentleness that is nevertheless full of import. The Choir and Ho achieve this by letting the conviction, reverence and delight in the music and its devotional depth carry all the weight.

In the Credo of the same mass [tr.4], for example, the words of great moment make their impact almost by understatement. By singing with a barely suppressed exuberance that invites our appreciation of the commitment because its significance is so simple. This is re-inforced by the performers' adherence to, and emphasis on (if that isn't contradictory) Guerrero's simple, melodic lines. The very end of that movement with all its flourishes and indomitable optimism is a good example of the Choir's sense of life. In similar vein the Choir brings a peace, and settled calm to the motets – especially Alma Redemptoris Mater – [tr.9] which is very potent.

This particular Mass is a "parody" mass on the motet of the same name by Guerrero's older contemporary, Cristóbel Morales (c.1500-1553), with whom Guerrero studied. Together with the even better known Victoria, these three composers dominated Spanish music in the sixteenth century, and in fact Guerrero was more prolific than they. Guerrero, in particular, is underrepresented in the catalog, this excellent Arsis offering of the Missa Simile est regnum coelorum being the only one; The Sixteen do have a CD (Coro 16067) containing the Missa de la batalla escoutez; the Musica Ficta Vocal Ensemble has a selection, Hispalensis (Enchiriadis 2009), including all three motets.

These motets, settings of Marian antiphons, show the composer at his most lyrical, extrovert almost. Yet these performances have a dignity and restraint that only adds to the vocal and textual impact no matter how dense the polyphonic line… as towards the end of the sumptuous Regina coeli [tr.11], for example. Every word is clear and full of intention thanks to the clarity of articulation by the 20 or so members of the Church of the Advent Choir. If Guerrero's design was supplication, it was supplication, Ho and her singers have it, from someone who knows they deserve a positive response!

Even more full of vitality is the Missa de la batalla escoutez, which probably predates the Missa Simile est regnum coelorum. It is in no way rough-edged or immature, though, such is the integrity of these performers that they would have made no attempt to add to the music with an edge that it might not have possessed. Yet they seem particularly adept at finding the positive, the uplifting and the commendable in this music.

The acoustic is rounded and warm, though never threatens to overpower the singing, which is clean and dignified throughout, though without any taint of the "triumphant". There is a short and informative booklet with the texts in latin and English. This is repertoire that seems impossible not to delight in. Though it does need a sensitive and knowledgeable approach to seem its best. In other circumstances it might even need a talented advocate for anyone new to its concentration and rich texture. By not explicitly promising to play such a role at the start, yet by dint of sheer experience and expertise in the way they are immersed in the music, Ho, Dwyer and the Church of the Advent Choir almost inadvertently become unobtrusive advocates with whose beautiful and lucid interpretations it is impossible to argue. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey

Trumpet