American Record Guide

Alessandro Grandi (c.1575-1630) dedicated his 1614 collection of five-voice motets to the widow of Alfonso II d’Este, Margherita Gonzaga, whose support of music was renowned and extensive and who founded and entered a convent where polyphonic music was performed by nuns. Although there is almost no doubt that this music would have been part of the convent’s repertoire, there is also no doubt that Grandi did not compose the pieces exclusively for female singers.

As an exclusively-female ensemble, Musica Secreta (founded in 1990) has devoted itself to the “recovery, performance and recording of music associated with women in the early modern period”. With great care, sensitivity, and musical judgement, the ensemble arranges and transposes the music so that it matches their vocal resources. Sometimes instruments at quite a discrete and low volume- double the voices or play the lower parts. Sometimes the pieces are transposed up a whole tone, up an octave, etc. Exactly what has been changed is specified in the accompanying notes; for example ‘O Dulcis et O Pia’ is transposed up a whole tone and the bass is not sung, and in ‘Letaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis’ the quintus, tenor and bass parts are transposed up an octave.

An attractive humility and fervent earnestness comes through in the performances. It does take a bit of time to get used to the timbre of the all-female ensemble, and sometimes the singers stretch to get to the bottom notes, but word painting is effectively interpreted – as in the liquid melismas of ‘Anima Mea Liquefacta Est’ (My Soul is Melted) – and the performance and repertoire decisions are convincing. In a few places, momentum wanes (as in Josquin’s ‘Agnus Dei III’ from the Homme Armé mass and the opening of Grandi’d ‘Exaudi Deus Orationanem Meam’).

The program includes 20 minutes of music from Musica Secreta’s “multi-arts” project, Fallen , a theatre piece that uses film and other media in performance. The music here is plainchant along with compositions by Josquin, Wert, and St. Catherine of Bologna. The music complements the Grandi collection very well, and the performances further demonstrate this different way of performing early polyphony. The female eight-voice Celestial Sirens ensemble joins Musica Secreta for four of these pieces, as well as for Grandi’s ‘Letaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis’.

Texts, translations, and notes with details of arrangements, transpositions, and instrumentation.

—C. Moore