Wednesday 10 June 2020

From the pen of the septuagenarian swan: Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis from the Choir of Keble College and the Academy of Ancient Music

Francisco Valls Missa Regalis; Choir of Keble College, Academy of Ancient Music, Matthew Martin; AAM
Francisco Valls Missa Regalis; Choir of Keble College, Academy of Ancient Music, Matthew Martin; AAM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A late work by the 18th century Spanish composer Francisco Valls reveals a work rich in subtlety with an unusual use of polyphony for the period

Francisco Valls (c1671 to 1747) was an important Spanish composer of the Baroque period, known for his compositions and for his publications on musical theory. His best known work, the Missa Scala Aretina caused controversy because of its use of unprepared dissonance; something that would not have surprised listeners to the music of Henry Purcell but which raised eyebrows to Valls' Iberian contemporaries.

Valls was probably born in Valencia and was an important figure in Catalan music at a critical time, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1705-14), and he spent much of his working life as chapel-master of Barcelona Cathedral. Valls retired in 1726 (though he was in exile from 1719 to 1725, owing to his support for the losing Hapsburg candidate, Carlos II (Archduke Charles), in the War of the Spanish Succession). But he was alive for two decades following his retirement, and many years after his last dated compositions he wrote his Missa Regalis for King Joao V of Portugal in 1740 (the King who brought Domenico Scarlatti from Rome to become a chamber musician to his daughter Maria Barbara).

It is not entirely certain how Valls seems to have come out of retirement to write for the Portuguese king, one possibility is King Joao's support for the Hapsburg candidate to the Spanish throne, and that Joao married Archduke Charles' sister Maria Anna of Austria.

On this new disc on the Academy of Ancient Music's own label, Matthew Martin directs the choir of Keble College and members of the Academy of Ancient Music in Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis; this is primarily vocal music with the instruments simply providing support, here just Joseph Crouch (bass violin), Inga Klaucke (dulcian) and Edward Higginbottom (organ). Interspersed in the movements of the masses is organ music by Francisco Correa de Arauxo and Juan Bautista Jose Cabanilles, performed by Matthew Martin.

Valls' earlier masses, written in his youth and in his maturity, were notable for their use of multiple choir and for their concertato style so his Missa Scala Aretina uses three choirs mixing voices and instruments. But here, in his swansong, Valls writes with relative sobriety with a five-voice mass with the instruments just supporting the voices, gone are the showier moments from Valls' other celebratory masses. Partly, perhaps, this is due to old age and a desire to concentrate his art, but also it reflects the musical style of the Portuguese royal chapel. King Joao's taste ran to old-fashioned counter-point, and this was a period when the Papal court and other royal courts were moving away from the concertato style to something more sober.

Valls, in fact, uses a cantus firmus in the mass which in itself was rather old-fashioned at the time. Valls' cantus firmus here is based on the same hexachord (six-note figure) on which the Missa Scala Aretina was based (Guido d'Arezzo's six note scale uses since medieval times to teach the rudiments of music). But Valls' use of the cantus firmus is far more varied than his models (Palestrina and Morales). He writes remarkably varied polyphony, quite unlike a lot of his contemporaries, yet Valls brings a very 18th century ear for colour to his music.

Most of Valls' liturgical music is known via the sets of parts (created by copyists) which he left to Barcelona Cathedral, but Missa Regalis is known, unusually, via an autograph score, and he signs it off with the phrase 'thus sang the almost septuagenarian swan'. There are, in fact, no performing parts which makes commentators wonder whether the mass was performed at all.

Between the movements of the mass, Matthew Martin plays three pieces by two 17th century Spanish composers, Francisco Correa de Arouxo and Juan Bautista Jose Cabinilles. Not designed to create a mass re-construction, this striking tientos form contrasting pause points, and take us back to Spanish music of a different age. Whilst the mass was recorded in chapel of Keble College, Oxford, the organ pieces were recorded on the Aubertin organ (installed in 2008) in the chapel of St John's College, Oxford and then overlayed with elements of the Keble Chapel acoustic.

The disc is slightly on the short side, which makes for an interestingly concentrated listen and helps to showcase the mass. Given the relative unfamiliarity of Valls' music, it perhaps might have been interesting to showcase more of his liturgical music but then the musicological work involved might have been significantly more. We must hope that this disc raises interest in Valls' music and encourages others to make his works available.

For those interested in taking this music further, Valls' Missa Regalis is available on the CPDL website, (though I must emphasise that it is not in the edition created by Simon Heighes for this recording), and CPDL does have a remarkable amount of Valls' music available for those wanting to explore [CPDL website]

This is engaging music, and will appeal to all who are intrigued by the use of polyphony into the mid-18th century. Matthew Martin draws a fine performance from his choir, who clearly enjoy the well-made polyphony and the little quirks of personality which mark the composer's distinguished pedigree, and show that the 'septuagenarian swan' had not lost all his youthful fire.

Francisco Valls (c1671-1747) - Missa Regalis
Francisco Correa de Arouxo - Tiento y discurso de segundo tono
Juan Bautista Jose Cabinilles - Tiento de calsa primer tono
Francisco Correa de Arouxo- Tiento medio registro de tiple de septimo tono
Choir of Keble College, Oxford
Academy of Ancient Music (Joseph Crouch - bass violin, Inga Maria Klaucke - dulcian, Dr Edward Higginbottom - organ)
Matthew Martin (director, organ)
Recorded in the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, 6 December 2018, and Chapel of St John's College, Oxford, 9 July 2019

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