International Record Review

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill recording of an early seventeenth century motet collection. Instead of merely accepting the music at face value, as originally published, we are invited to make a leap of faith and enter the cloistered world of an Italian convent and imagine the performances are given by an ensemble of nuns. This approach is inspired by the original dedicatee of the Motetti a cinque voci (1614): the well-connected Margherita Gonzaga d’Este, widow of Alfonso II d’Este and a great lover and patroness of the arts. When her husband died she returned to Mantua, her birthplace, and in 1599 founded the Clarissan convent of Sant’Orsola, to which she retired. Sensibly, she never took holy vows herself, which meant she enjoyed extra worldly privileges and successfully petitioned the Pope to allow the singing of polyphony at the convent.

Whether the music of Alessandro Grandi’s third book of motets was ever actually heard at Sant’Orsola is unknown, but what is certain is that the motets could not have been performed in their published form for a mixed ensemble of high and low (male ) voices. The directors of Musica Secreta make a perfectly valid case for transposing and arranging the music to suit an all-female ensemble plus a continuo group of harp, lute and organ: such pragmatic adaptation was part and parcel of musical life at the time. My only reservations really are where a couple of the motets have been transposed up a fourth and sound very high, especially Versa est in luctum cithara mea, which has too bright a sonority for a funeral motet. Full details of all the changes made to each piece are meticulously detailed in the accompanying booklet.

The performances here would surely have delighted Margherita, not only in their technical accomplishment but also in their self-effacing modesty. Though the texts are beautifully expressed, the approach is not a strongly rhetorical one. In the highly wrought Amina mea liquefacta (My soul is melted), the contrasts of mood and sonority are handled with the utmost refinement. Here, as elsewhere, there’s a strong metrical pulse to the performances, which sometimes could have been relaxed a fraction to considerable expressive advantage.

We are also treated to six bonus tracks which Musica Secreta uses in its theatre piece Fallen, based on the life of a young nun in Ferrara. Wert’s motet Vox in Rama audita est (1581) is hauntingly sung by Catherine King, with the three other voice parts taken by harp, lute and organ. Overall, this is beautifully refined music-making – sonorous, soulful and sincere.

—Simon Heighes