Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

AAM008
07 Jun 2020

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Francisco Valls: Missa Regina

The Choir of Keble College Oxford (Matthew Martin, director), The Academy of Ancient Music

AAM 008 [CD]

£12.00  Click to buy

But the unprepared dissonant ninth created by the entry of the second soprano that Francisco Valls exploited for expressive effect in the Gloria of his 1702 Mass triggered, in 1715, a furious debate which raged for eight years, involving more than 60 Spanish musicians with celebrated composers from other European nations including Italians such as Alessandro Scarlatti and Vaz Rego from Portugal having their say too.

Today, while the musical glories of the Spanish Renaissance - by Victoria, Morales, Escobedo and others - are deservedly celebrated, the names of Valls (c.1672-1747) and his Baroque contemporaries remain largely obscure, their music neglected. There are several reasons for this, as José López-Calo, whose 1978 edition for Novello was the first modern edition of Valls’ aforementioned Mass, has explained. [1] Most significant was the Spanish liturgical practice which obliged every cathedral mestre de capela to provide new music for each feast day, and insisted that sacred works in the vernacular could be performed only once. Archives of 16th-century masses psalms and motets were mined; where particular local practices did not make new native works unsuitable for use elsewhere, they were disseminated within Spain, usually in hand-copied form since there was no ‘market’ for these compositions. The result, inevitably, was the end of the rich musical interaction Spanish musicians had enjoyed with their counterparts in France and especially Italy, and the prevalence of a conservative musical style and compositional practice.

In this context, Valls’ reputation for musical experimentation and daring seems rather surprising, and it’s true that his music is not consistently characterised by innovation. However, his riposte to his detractors in 1715 is interesting:

‘I concede that the entry of the second soprano is against all the prescribed rules. I concede that the Ancients did not use it and that I am, therefore, its inventor; let us see if it should not be granted praise rather than blame. Can anyone deny that the entry is something new, a rare means of heightening the melodic expression? If the use of dissonant intervals and chords is permitted (to give variety to music), why should not this entry be accepted, since it achieves, in its harmonic resolution, both variety and [the] consonance ...?’

Expressive heightening of this kind is powerful and affecting in this fascinating new recording of the 1740 Missa Regalis by the Choir of Keble College Oxford under their director Matthew Martin and the Academy of Ancient Music, made possible by the new edition of the Mass which has been prepared by Simon Heighes.

Like many of Valls’ works, the Missa Regalis remained unpublished and its manuscript preserved in the Biblioteca Central in Barcelona (during Franco’s rule these manuscripts were not available for inspection, exacerbating their neglect). Though his place of birth remains uncertain, Valls spent most of his career as mestre de capela at the city’s Cathedral, a post to which he was appointed to on 17 December 1696 after a short spell at Sancta Maria del Mar parish church. Valls’ appointment is striking for two reasons: first, at 24-years-old he was very young to gain such an illustrious and profitable post, and second, contrary to convention, he was awarded the position without any interview or examination process. It seems that his reputation must have been superlative, although in a letter to the Musical Times in 1978, Geraldus Warmodiensis (the editor of a Missa Scora Maggiore for Barcelona University Press’s complete edition of Valls’ works) suggested that evidence had come to light that ‘from an early date he was a spy in the service of the French court, a fact which accounts for his having been offered the Barcelona post without even having to apply for it. When his activities were discovered in the 1720s, he was persuaded to retire ‘for health reasons’’. [2]

For whatever reason, on 22 February 1726 Valls did indeed make an application for retirement. The remaining years of his life were largely devoted to writing a theoretical treatise, Mapa armónico (1742), a defence of Spanish practices against Italian and French compositional styles and the publication for which, until recently, he has perhaps been best known. However, Valls did not stop composing after his retirement. The Missa Regalis was dedicated to King John V of Portugal and its fairly small vocal forces (SSATB), which are accompanied by just continuo, attest to the practices at the Portuguese Royal Chapel where the concertante style was prohibited.

The Mass is a hexachord mass, the foundation of each movement, as in the Missa Scala Aretina, being the six-note sequence known as the ‘scala aretina’, so-named by Guido d’Arrezo. Valls’ contrapuntal ingenuity and invention are immediately notable in the Kyrie. After a majestic homophonic opening statement, lightened initially by its commencement on the second beat of the bar and subsequently by a glorious enrichment of texture and colour - which rings triumphantly in the acoustic of Keble College Chapel - the Kyrie’s movement from the simple rising line sung by the first sopranos, echoed by the tenors, into a flowering celebration of intertwining statements and variants of the cantus firmus, now ascending, now descending, ever-more rhythmically dynamic, enlivened further by syncopation and melodic elaboration, is uplifting. The Keble College voices are bright, buoyant and joyful. There is the slightest, and most telling, shading when the music takes a brief turn towards a fairly distance minor key.

The ‘Christe eleison’ turns the cantus firmus into a triple-time dance, a brief running quaver motif that rises and then falls then switches direction. However complex and rich the interplay, this motif shines through, even in lower registers and inner parts. The section cadences into the concluding ‘Kyrie eleison’, transforming the dancing motif into a 4/4 statement of greater stature and the Keble Choir sustain the growth and momentum persuasively. If there is nothing ‘radical’ here, there is unceasing interest and perhaps a sign of Valls’ harmonic expressiveness in the hints of subdominant tonality which persist almost to the final bar.

The Gloria is more restrained at the opening, fittingly so for its blessing of peace and good will to all men on earth. This is lovely lyrical, legato singing. Animation begins to infuse when the voices praise and bless God, the melismas flowing warmly, smoothly and with increasing energy. “Adoramus te, glorificamus te” propels the music onwards and conveys conviction. The alternation of homophony and polyphony makes “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris” a statement of both affirmation and rejoicing, but there is a dramatic change of mood at “Qui tollis peccata mundi” where the falling lines, introduction of chromaticism and slower note-values combined with harmonic excursions through various minor-key tonalities create a sombre tone. This gravity is only partially alleviated by the crescendo-ing ascent of the plea, “deprecationem nostrum” (receive our prayer), which remains coloured by strange, overlapping seventh and ninths, though the strong pedal bass promises assurance of resolution. The vocal lines are clean and crisp, the diction superb: but, even it were not, Valls’ unmannered ‘painting’ of the religious sentiments leaves one in no doubt of the text’s meaning.

In the Credo we begin to understand why Valls’ contemporaries might have been so perturbed by his harmonic innovations. No matter how intricate the counterpoint of the opening section, director Matthew Martin keeps things airy and flowing, saving the magnificence and weight for the concluding “descendit de caelis”. But, with the “Et incarnatus”, the knives begin to pierce and twist: the dissonances are astonishing! After multiple hearings I still could not discern exactly what was going on, other than the ninths seem to pile up, and that the dissonant notes do not themselves resolve but rely on the movement, often torturously delayed, of the parts around them, denying the resolution of any real assuagement. Martin resists the temptation to over-egg this passage, allowing the music to speak for itself - and it does so with tremendous impact. The portrait of Christ’s crucifixion, suffering and death has a few more surprises up its sleeve, but in the rest of the movement, the singers are kept on their rhythmic toes as each textual phrase has its own metrical character. Martin melds them together convincingly, and the music of the concluding phrases are conciliatory though the familiar sequences, harmonic cycles and cadences - even in the final Amen - never go exactly when one expects them to.

The Sanctus is fairly short (and there is no Benedictus) but not lacking in intriguing details, not least the swift modulation from major to minor within the phrase “Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua”, the disconcerting immediate repetition of this phrase a lurching semi-tone higher, and the temporal tugging of three against four in the closing “Hosanna in the highest”. All such details are immaculately performed. The Agnus Dei has a tempered dignity, the cantus firmus returning to the foreground, in its falling intervallic forms, and creating chains of dissonances and delayed resolution until the final homophonic declaration, “dona nobis pacem”.

The balance between organ (Edward Higginbottom) and choir is excellent, though I have to say that the other continuo instruments - bass violin (Joseph Crouch) and ducian (Inga Klaucke) make little obvious impression, perhaps inevitably so given the nature of the music and the acoustic in the College Chapel. The Gloria, Credo and Sanctus are each followed by organ music by two seventh-century Spanish composers, Francisco Corrêa de Arouxo and Juan Bautista José Cabinilles. It is played on the organ in the Chapel of St John’s College, Oxford by Matthew Martin, and described in a liner book article by Stephen Farr. As always, this is a handsome package from the AAM and that article appears alongside two by Mark J. Merrill, on the ‘tiento’ form illustrated by the works chosen here and the development of early Spanish organs, another by Álvarez Torrente informing us about Valls’ life and career, and Simon Heighes’ account of the manuscript, editing process and Valls’ music.

On the title page of the manuscript of the Missa Regalis, Valls described this late work as his ‘swansong’. Listening to this fine recording, surely many choirmasters and directors of music will long to perform this Mass, and hopefully it will encourage others to delve into those Barcelona archives and provide us with opportunities in the future to hear much more of the music by Valls that preceded it.

Claire Seymour



[1] José López-Calo, ‘The Spanish Baroque and Francisco Valls’, Musical Times 113 (1972), 353-56.

[2] Geraldus Warmodiensis, Musical Times 119/1625 (1978), p.586. Warmodiensis adds a further entertaining anecdote: ‘His brother Escamillo was a well-known bullfighter and the model for the famous character in Carmen.’

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):