The Consort

I have to admit that I first put this recording on with some trepidation: I grew up after the feminist battle had been won, and am always a little suspicious of, and indeed feel patronized by, projects that appear not to have realized that the fight is over. The ever-so-slightly gimmicky liner notes didn’t help: the background images on every page make the (lucid and well-written) text difficult to read; the Latin words and corresponding English translations are not lined up with each other, in a (presumably) artsy (but in reality, clumsy) design; even the front cover runs the risk of looking New Age, or perhaps sensationalist, rather than attempting to provide a serious contribution to early music scholarship.

However, the aims of Musica Secreta are of great interest to all musicians, design and gender issues aside. Common sense dictates that renaissance and baroque nuns much have sung more than plainsong, but just how did the polyphony work when limited to upper voices? Since the standard format for the publication of 16 th century polyphony was a set of part books for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (with extra voices as necessary), the implication is that this repertoire was sung only by men, who can, of course, cover all of these parts on their own, with the use of both broken and unbroken voices.

It is now understood that these part books could be interpreted in a number of ways, however, which would allow nuns access to this music as well. Various possibilities are available, and all are demonstrated on this recording. A straightforward transposition of those pieces with a narrow enough compass is the most obvious; other options include the use of an instrument to carry the bass part, while the upper parts are sung; another possibility is that the top part alone is sung as a solo, while the other parts are played by an instrumentalist; transposition of just some of the vocal parts provides another alternative, though great care must be taken here not to create grammatical errors in the inversion process.

As its title indicates, this recording includes the Motets for five voices published in 1614 by Alessandro Grandi ( c 1577-1630). It also includes bonus material from Musica Secreta’s multimedia presentation Fallen , a collaboration with playwright Fiona Mackay, theatre director Anthony Richards, and filmmaker T Perrin Sledge, which tells the story of a young 17 th century girl who is on the eve of enforced enclosure in an Italian convent. The singing is first-class throughout the CD: clear, free, compelling, and with nearly impeccable intonation. Indeed, one of the advantages of freely arranging the music is that it can all be sung at a tessitura that suits the singers on hand: there is almost none of the pinched, slightly sharp, vibrato-less singing that one often hears in mixed-voice recordings.

On listening, I was never aware of the fact that I was only hearing upper voices, and although the liner notes make no apologies for disconcerting the listener, the caveat is actually unnecessary. This recording is absolutely worth obtaining, for the sake of some really exquisite singing (not to mention the repertoire itself), even if, as the notes say: ‘None of the performances on this recording should be considered definitive; we simply offer them as possibilities, based on what we know of the book’s [Grandi’s Motetti ] history’.

—Sarah MacDonald