Monday, February 20, 2017

Misery and Mercy

I am not a music critic so I cannot judge the performances on this CD according to a professional jargon; my response is emotional and/or devotional. The 80-plus minutes of this music, all dealing with psalms or prayers of misery and mercy, is spread over two CDS. You can hear samples here, here, here, and here. Scattered Ashes: Josquin's Miserere and the Savonarolan Legacy compiles great Renaissance polyphonic renditions of Psalm 50 and 30 with Fra Savonarola's meditations on those prayers for mercy, written while he was in prison before his public execution for heresy.

The BBC Music Magazine liked the CD set very much in June, 2016:

Despite his condemnation of earthly pleasures, the iconoclastic Dominican friar Savonarola inspired a surprising legacy of musical outpourings. Among these 'scattered ashes' are the Latin motets recorded here, based on the psalm meditations he wrote whilst imprisoned awaiting execution. After his death, Renaissance composers across Europe, of the stature of Byrd, Gombert, Josquin, and Lassus, carved musical monuments from his words - ironically, in the polyphonic idiom against which the friar had railed because it charmed the senses and obscured the words. Savonarola's texts are deeply penitential in quality, yet the music on these two discs ranges from austere to luxuriant, urgent to serene. Magnificat's director Philip Cave shape's poised, subtly expressive and finely balanced readings from the vocal ensemble he founded a quarter of a century ago. His measured tempos reflect the predominantly contemplative tone of these works, and the sable hues and unwavering timbres of his singers are aptly evocative of Savonarolan sobriety. Fleeting visions of light illuminate the pervasive melancholy, notably in the radiant performance of Palestrina's Tribularer, si nescirem. Here, and throughout the programme, are constant allusions to Josquin's hauntingly introspective motet Miserere mei, Deus, echoes of which turn and return like obsessive memories. By offsetting single voices with the richer sound of the full ensemble, Cave throws sections of this statuesque motet into high relief- and to vivid effect.

If nothing else, this CD set introduced me to Josquin des Prez's Miserere which is so different from the Allegri Miserere with all its secret cache. With its haunting repetition of the prayer "Miserere mei, Deus" throughout the text of the psalm, it is quite effective. I enjoyed the variety of polyphonic styles on the first disc most of all, but the entire set is perfect listening for Lent. The liner notes are excellent, providing an overview of European court history and highlighting William Byrd's version of one of Savonarola's prayers, Infelix ego in the context of Recusant England. Beautiful!

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