...generally a very strong collection...
Matthew Shorter 2002
If most British listeners have an image at all of Spanish choral music, it will be of Renaissance masters such as Victoria and Lobo, who brought a special fervour to the seamless 16th-century contrapuntal style.
So neglected is 19th-century Spanish choral music that the majority of recordings on this disc, recently selected by Gramophone as a Critics' Choice CD of the year, are world premières. The Coro Cervantes - Britain's only professional group devoted to Hispanic classical repertoire - and their director Carlos Fernández Aransay are clearly on a mission of discovery and recovery. Their zeal shines forth in these performances, whose passion is balanced by finely-nuanced direction and precise ensemble.
The excitement of discovery is especially palpable in the first four tracks of the disc, which in their awestruck polyphony capture something of the spirit and technique of the Renaissance greats, from the numinous opening of Albéniz's a capella psalm setting to Vicente Goioechea's impassioned Christus Factus est, via some splendid organ fanfares in Granados' Salve Regina and a perfect minute-long sliver of a motet by Falla.
The appearance of great names such as Albéniz, Granados, Falla and Sor in the unfamiliar guise of sacred choral music is one of the best surprises of the collection.
At just under 80 minutes and with 19 tracks this disc is good value, though such a rich feast demands a lot of the musical digestion. Every work but one is in Latin, and the acoustic and organ of Exeter College chapel, Oxford make for a somewhat uniform texture - albeit wonderfully mellow and full-bodied across a well-balanced recording.
But thoughtful programming is very helpful here, with a capella numbers and those with organ accompaniment alternating to vary the texture, and several works featuring a solo part peppered throughout. There's also a range of idiom and mood, from the sublime intimacy of the more modern opening numbers to the light-hearted and operatic, by way of Francisco Barbieri's dramatic word-painting and Pedrell's densely syllabic settings.
If at times the quality of the music seem uneven, this is probably a fair reflection of a period in which Spanish church music seems to have been under attack from all sides, as first Napoleonic invaders and later the Spanish government itself seized church assets, closed music chapels and finally banned lay musicians from performing in churches. Hardly surprising that the choral tradition became somewhat impoverished as a result - which makes the care and attention that have clearly gone into assembling what is generally a very strong collection all the more impressive.