Monday 29 July 2013

Libera Nos - The Cry of the Oppressed

Libera nos - The Cry of the Oppressed: Contrapunctus/Owen Rees - Signum Sigcd338
We are learning a lot more about William Byrd's Latin church music and the inspiration behind it. Many of the texts for his Latin motets were chosen not for their liturgical usage but for the relevance that the words had to the recusant Roman Catholics in England. So that Byrd's entire Latin output, the motets in the collections Cantiones Sacrae, the Gradualia (setting all the propers necessary for the mass) and the Masses (setting the ordinary), can be seen as responding to the plight of Roman Catholics in England.

On this new disc, Owen Rees and his vocal ensemble Contrapunctus take Byrd's music and perform it alongside that of English contemporaries Tallis and Martin Peerson, both of whom may have had Roman Catholic sympathies, plus the Flemish Philippe de Monte with whom Byrd had contacts. Rather imaginatively Rees also contrasts these with the music of Manuel Cardoso and Pedro de Criso, written to express the suffering of the Portugese people under Spanish rule.

Contrapunctus is a 10 voice ensemble (4 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses) with men on the alto line.

The programme opens with Byrd's Civtas Sancti tui from his 1589 Cantiones Sacrae with its text lamenting the 'city made desolate', a clear signal to Byrd's oppressed co-religionists. Tallis was Byrd's teacher and there is some evidence that he may have preserved Roman Catholic sympathies during his long life. Libera Nos survives in purely instrumental form. The work is based on the plainchant antiphon Libera nos, salva nos (Free us, Save us) and like many of the other instrumental works in the same collection, probably started out as a vocal piece.

Their performance of these is notable for the clarity and smoothness and line, with a lovely clear bright top, and a fabulous high soprano part in the Tallis. The motets are superbly shaped with a sense of an endless line and forward linear motion. The results are very beautiful, but I did feel that the words were subsumed into the requirement to sing legato. These are performances of great poise, but the sense of the underlying pain of the text is hardly brought out and I wanted more sense of the words.

The next pair of works are a fascinating piece of correspondence. The Flemish composer Philippe de Monte came to England in 1554/55 with the Capilla Flamenca in the entourage of Prince Philip of Spain (later King Philip II) when he came to marry Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor). De Monte sang at the wedding and may have met William Byrd. The two composers seem to have remained in some sort of contact because De Monte sent Byrd a setting of the first four verses of Psalm 138, Super flumina Babylonis (By the rivers of Babylon) for eight voices, evidently as a gesture of support for English Roman Catholicism. Byrd responded by setting verses four to seven of the psalm (thus overlapping with De Monte by one verse) also for eight voices.

The result makes a remarkable and fascinating double motet, testament to the continental support for English Roman Catholics. De Monte's setting is given a finely vibrant performance, with some lovely relishing of the false relations. Byrd's motet Quomodo cantabimus (How shall we sing) is sung with a grave beauty but still with my reservations.

Manuel Cardoso (1566 - 1650) was the composer most associated with John, Duke of Braganca, the Portuguese pretender to the throne who would come to power as King John IV on Portuguese independence from Spain in 1640. Cardoso published Sitvit anima mea (My soul thirsts) in his first book of masses in 1625, dedicated to the duke. Cardoso's letter of dedication refers to the duke's 'Royal House', and though the text of Sitvit anima mea is perfectly proper for the rituals of the dead, it talks of a desire to see the divine face which hints at other possible meanings. Just the way Byrd's motets do.

Cardoso's music is rather more demonstrative than Byrd's and the ensemble clearly enjoy the composer's interlocking lines.

Martin Peerson (1571/73 - 1651) was a new name to me. He was convicted of recusancy in 1606 and the texts of his collection Private Music (1620) hint at this, though in his article in the CD booklet Rees points out that Peerson did take a BMus at Oxford so must have had to conform. Peerson's motets survive with the top line missing, so Contrapunctus perform Peersons Laboravi in gemitu meo (Ihave laboured with my groaning) in Richard Rastall's reconstruction. This is a slightly different sound world, with some interesting chromatic hings, false relations and different combinations of voices, I would like to learn more of Peerson's music.

The text of the psalm, Miserere mei Deus (Have mercy on me, O Lord) were recited at the scaffold by a number of English Catholic martyrs, so its inclusion here in Byrd's short motet is apt and the ensemble give it a beautifully balanced performance with a gorgeous quality of sound.

The other aspect of the Portuguese resistance to Spanish rule was Sebastianism, the idea that the Portuguese King Sebastian who was lost in battle in North Africa would return and free them from the Spanish yoke. The motet Lachrimans sitvit anima mea (Weeping, my soul has thirsted to see thee) by Pedro de Cristo (c.1550-1618) refers to this. The text combines elements of the Office for the Dead, the Song of Songs and the opening of Psalm 41 into a text which expresses the pain of prolonged exile and the longing for the return of the Saviour. The motet has some very expressive chromatic moments in the melody and moments of great passion.

Equally extraordinary is Byrd's Plorans plorabit from his Gradualia of 1605, in which the text talks of weeping for the captivity of the Lord's flock then goes on to forsee the downfall of the king and queen (which in England in 1605 could be taken to mean King James I and Queen Anne). The ensemble give this a dark-toned performance, the smooth lines highly evocative. In Thomas Tallis's In jejunio et fletu the daring is all in the harmony. Tallis sets a Lenten text in which the priests call upon God to spare his people from destruction, but uses amazingly daringly unsettled harmonies more reminiscent of Lassus than Elizabethan England. Rees opts for perfection here, keeping the texture smooth and perfect rather than relishing the unsettled nature of Tallis's harmonies. It is a poised, beautifully shaped reading.

Tallis's Salvator Mundi is in his more perfectly conventional mode but wonderful nonetheless, the motet took pride of place in his and Byrd's joint publication, the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. A perfect gem. Christo's Inter vestibulum et altare sets a text related to Tallis's In jejunio et fletu, but this time ending with a please that the Lord's people and heritage be saved from foreign dominion, pointed indeed.

Finally, we get William Byrd's huge Infelix ergo a setting of the first part of Savonarola's meditation on Psalm 50. Byrd's setting was published in 1591 and represents a remarkable achievement, setting a text which had no liturgical function and would have had a strong resonance to recusants in England. The ensemble do not disappoint and their performance is technically superb, with some profoundly beautiful and expressive textures. But I must return to the point I raised at the beginning. The singers simply do not make enough of the words, and I feel that the performances are simply too beautiful. The title of the disc Libera nos - the Cry of the Oppressed just simply does not come over enough in the performance, I wanted more bite and a greater sense of the sense of the words.

The CD booklet includes a fine article by Owen Rees introducing the music and its background, plus full texts and translations.

That said, these are beautifully performed accounts of a very fine set of motets and anyone would be delighted to have these technically poised performances on their library shelf

Libera nos - The Cry of the Oppressed
William Byrd (1540 - 1623) - Civitas sancti tui [5.02]
Thomas Tallis (c.1505 - 1585) - Libera nos [2.08]
Philippe de Monte (1521 - 1603) - Super flumina Babylonis [5.41]
William Byrd - Quomod cantabimus [8.38]
Manuel Cardoso (1566 - 1650) - Sitivit anima mea [4.22]
Martin Peerson (1571/73 - 1651) - Labroavi in gemitu meo [5.29]
William Byrd - Miserere mei Deus [3.20]
Pedro de Cristo (c.1550 - 1618) - Lachrimans sitivit anima mea [5.54]
William Byrd - Plorans plorabit [5.07]
Thomas Tallis - In jejunio et fletu [4.54]
Thomas Tallis - Salvator Mundi [2.50]
Pedro de Cristo - Inter vestibulum [2.33]
William Byrd - Infelix ego [13.34]
Owen Rees (conductor)
Recorded in the church of St Michael and All Angels, oxford, 26-28 November 2013

SIGNUM SIGCD338 1CD [69.33]

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