Classical CD Reviews

FRANCISCO DE PENALOSA: Missa Nunca fue pena mayor; motets; instrumental works – Ens. Gilles Binchois/ Les Sacqueboutiers/ Dominique Vellard – Glossa

The best and most popular composer of Spain before Morales, Penalosa’s Mass is probably his best work.

Published on August 9, 2013

FRANCISCO DE PENALOSA: Missa Nunca fue pena mayor; motets; instrumental works – Ens. Gilles Binchois/ Les Sacqueboutiers/ Dominique Vellard – Glossa GCD 922305, 58:43 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Peñalosa (c. 1470 – 1528) was that rarity among composers—exceptionally talented, fortunate in the extreme in that he was paid and found highly important jobs during his career, and, perhaps the best, vastly appreciated among those who knew him, and even among those who disliked him. He was born near Toledo, worked initially in Burgos, spent time as a singer in the Papal chapel in Rome, and most of his life as maestro di capilla at the Seville Cathedral, after 20 years at the royal Aragonese chapel.

He was perhaps the most famous Spanish composer of his time, though because he lived before the days—and centers—of printing, did not enjoy the advantages that that medium afforded later composers in terms of spreading his name and work. He was a master of counterpoint—several of his works were once assumed to be by other composers, such as Josquin, which demonstrates the quality of his work—and possessed an uncanny ability to adapt different styles according to the needs of the genre. Masses, Magnificats (among his two dozen motets, five hymns, three lamentations, and eleven songs) and other liturgical structures use a cantus firmus for its contrapuntal basis, while devotional non-liturgical pieces are much more homophonic in nature.

Once of his greatest works is the Missa Nunca fue pena mayor, a piece that employs one of the most widely-disseminated songs of the period, by Juan de Urrede. The work speaks of the theme of the suffering Virgin Mother at the foot of the cross, a subject that was very popular during that age, even to the point that Queen Isabel adopted this devotion, concentrating on the moment when the Virgin held her dead son in her arms. The mass as given here is interspersed with motets of the composer that are of varying styles—some use the cantus firmus technique (few), while most are more vertical in structure. These are generally not taken from liturgical texts per se, but are attached to a particular theme of the season.

Ensemble Gilles Binchois (soprano, male alto, two tenors, and bass) and Les Sacqueboutiers (cornett, shawm, sackbut, and dulcian) sing and play with unreserved authority and a lot of energy in a fine acoustic of great clarity and depth.

—Steven Ritter




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