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Elder conducts Lohengrin

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Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

No sooner had I drafted my review of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto,



Francisco Guerrero: Missa Surge Propera
19 Jul 2006

GUERRERO: Missa Surge Propera

The composers Morales, Guerrero, and Victoria form a holy trinity of sorts, dominating Spanish church music in what we have come to see as a “Golden Age,” a time in which sixteenth-century liturgical polyphony assumed a classical perfection.

Francisco Guerrero: Missa Surge Propera

The Tallis Scholars. Peter Phillips, Director

Gimell CDGIM 040 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Moreover, given the flourishing of mysticism (Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, for example) and the rich body of religious paintings associated with El Greco, we can place this “holy trinity” in a cultural milieu where religion assumed an unusually strong hold.

There are several things that make Guerrero distinctive among this three, not least the biographical color that derives from his trip to the Holy Land and his confrontation with pirates on the voyage. He also is, of the three, the only one to compose a significant body of secular works in addition to masses and motets, a notably wider range of compositions. And while this recording from Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars restricts itself to liturgical works, it is Guerrero’s range that once again seemss notable. We are treated here to music that ranges from abstract counterpoint to highly affective, emotional expressions, and the affective qualities themselves span luxuriant dolor to exuberant joy.

The Missa Surge Propera is a more abstract work than the motets, with closely controlled counterpoint and long stretches of uniform texture and procedures. Phillips, however, remains alert to the text and sculpts the architecture of the piece with dynamic and tempo inflections, and also a fine ear for large-scale effects. Sometimes Guerrero points the way, as in the Credo where the incarnation section becomes simpler, but in all cases, Phillips is intent—successfully so—in uniting classically constrained contrapuntal writing with engagingly dynamic interpretation.

Occasionally, when the interpretation evokes strength, the reading seems perhaps overly strong. For example in the “pleni sunt caeli” section of the Sanctus, long notes are unusually intense and square shaped in a way that seems less rather than more expressive. This is all the more apparent in that the well-contoured, shapely line is a hallmark of Phillips’ beautiful conceptions of the motets.

Some of the motets are lamentative, like “Usquequo, Domine” and “Hei mihi, Domine,” and this musical lamentation was particularly resonant with the Spanish spirituality that defined the “dark night of the soul.” “Usquequo” is poignant with its lachrymal descents and homophonic settings of individual phrases, all of which receive a finely attentive response from Phillips and the Scholars. (And the last chord is simply sublime!) At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the “Regina caeli” highlights a joyful richness of sound, and the performance dazzles with its brilliant dynamism.

The Tallis Scholars, now in their thirty-third year, remain among the best interpreters of sixteenth-century liturgical polyphony. And in this Guerrero anthology, it is the commitment to an expressive mode of interpretation itself that marks the recording with trademark distinction.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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