GMCD 7266 – Oratio – 20th Century Sacred Music from Spain and Latin America

Coro Cervantes, Carlos Fernandez Aransay – Director, Charles Matthews – Organ

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Cathedral Music

‘In Spain, during the twentieth century, the figure of the professional church composer (attached to a music chapel and frequently acting as teacher, organist and singer) gradually disappeared. Subsequently every personal effort to write quality sacred music was an islet in the ocean of amateur or, even worse, canned music.’ Despite his rather pessimistic summary, Carlos Fernandez Aransay has been able to assemble a fascinating programme of music in varied styles and of uniformly high quality. Many readers will already know the setting of 0 vos omnes which Pau Casals wrote in 1932 for the monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia (a source of inspiration for other composers included here); and organists may have come across the Final para gran organo by the Basque organist-composer Jesus Guridi, who is also represented by a mellifluous Tantum ergo; but all else is unknown territory. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 silenced some composers and drove others into exile: similarly some Latin American artists took refuge in the USA after World War II, notably Alberto Ginastera with whose Lamentations of Prophet Jeremiah the programme begins. The most recent works are grouped together at the end, a rather horrid organ piece by Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), two motets from 1964 by Anton Garcia Abril (b. 1933) and, last and most recent, Speculum in aenzgmatem by Cesar Cano (b.1960) which won 1st prize in the Juan Bautista Comes competition in 1997. 1 recommend this recording without reservation: it is of unusual interest, and performances are excellent throughout.
Timothv Storev

BBC Music Magazine February 04

Followers of London’s professional Spanish-repertoire choir will be pleased that its debut CD (released two years ago) has a successor. So will other who go exploring this attractive collection of short, mostly unaccompanied works -often serene, sometimes dramatic- by Catalans, Basques, Spaniards and the Argentinean Alberto Ginastera.

Ginastera’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, the first and longest item, is also the most exciting and is brilliantly performed, before its quasi-Baroque tailing-off. A clash between the small choir’s vibrant style and the spacious acoustic turns out to be temporary, and the predominant quieter music has a glow that complements the singers’ sensitivity. Highlights include Pau Casals at his most fervently eloquent, Ernesto Halffter’s quirky, striking Oratio, an a freshly harmonised Agnus Dei by JAvier Busto which culminates in a epigrammatic six-part pile-up on “Dona nobis pacem” and creates an appetite for the Missa Brevis from which it is taken.

Mompou, Rodrigo and Montsalvatge (in a spiky organ solo) make their appearances among 19 pieces of which ten are premiere recordings. Outstanding among those are Jesús Guridi’s hymn-like Tantum ergo and vivid, Widor-meets-Saint-Saëns Final for organ; also, honourable mentions for Antón García Abril’s varied textures and the suave, deceptively simple O Iesu mi dulcissime by Padre Donostia
Robert Maycock

Bayerische Rundfunk

Das Coverbild mit einem Werkausschnitt von Salvador Dalí signalisiert es bereits: Hier erwartet den Hörer nicht Sakralmusik von etablierten Komponisten dieses Genres, sondern vielmehr geistliche Musik, die aus der (mitunter zweifelnden) Distanz heraus entstand, geprägt z.B. durch einschneidende Geschichtsereignisse wie den Zweiten Weltkrieg oder den Spanischen Bürgerkrieg. Umso interessanter die Tatsache, dass Komponisten, die gängigerweise auf anderem Terrain ihre Meriten haben, im Religiösen und im damit verbundenen (Kirchen-)Latein Zuflucht suchen. Etwa der Argentinier Alberto Ginastera, dessen hochexpressives “Klagelied des Jeremias” 1946/47 im New Yorker Exil entstand; oder Ernesto Halffter, einer der behördlich Schikanierten während des Spanischen Bürgerkrieges.

Auch ein spätromantisch geartetes “O vos omnes” von Pablo (Pau) Casals findet sich da, wie überhaupt ein eher gemäßigt moderner Ton auf dieser CD vorherrscht. Der 1995 in London gegründete Coro Cervantes wird mit seinen nur 16 Sängerinnen und Sängern der selbstgestellten Herausforderung vollauf gerecht, dabei hörbar verwurzelt in britisch-sonorer Chortradition.
Matthias Keller, Bayern 4 Klassik

International Record Review January 04

This is another first-class anthology of practically unknown choral music from Coro Cervantes, complementing to perfection its previous collection on Guild, ‘O Crux’. While many will at least have heard the names of Ernesto and Cristóbal Halffter, Jesús Guridí and Xavier Montsalvatge, the only composers who are likely to be at all familiar here are the Argentinian Ginastera and the Catalan Mompou. It is not going too far, I think, to say that Ginastera’s turbulent but masterly work is the highlight of the disc. The Lamentations are extremely austere, the biblical text reflecting the composer’s own political exile during the Perón era, but their angularity is relieved by frequent flashes of light and passages of sombrely beautiful reflective calm, often modally inflected, such as the beginning of the second section, ‘Ego vir videns’. When I first studied this difficult score years ago, accompanied by a decrepit tape from the publishers, I despaired of hearing a truly excellent performance. I’m glad to say that Coro Cervantes has proved my pessimism to be entirely unfounded: this is a tour de force. However, there are a number of other works in this varied anthology that cry out to be better known, among them Ernesto Halffter’s splendid Oratio and Javier Busto’s unusual and radiant Agnus Dei. The former reveals a true gift for choral writing, using the bass and alto soloists with great subtlety and employing choral textures that suggest a composer such as Grechaninov, while the latter’s dramatic textural switching would provide challenges in pitching for any choir – the singers of Coro Cervantes take them in their stride. Mompou’s urgently pleading and quite lovely Ave Maria is also a memorable piece, betraying, as do other works here recorded, a French influence in its harmonic vocabulary.

Pablo Casals I have always found to be an interesting composer, with quite an original feeling for structure and harmony. His effective O vos omnes, while not unknown, deserves to be performed more often than it is. (Incidentally, the text has accidentally been omitted from the otherwise careful booklet.) If Cristóbal Halffter’s Panis angelicus is unexpectedly approachable, it is because of its early date – according to Emilio Casares Rodicio’s book on the composer, it was written in 1954, when Halffter was 24 – and one can hardly recognize in it the composer of Variaciones sobre la resonancia de un grito, for example. For unusual repertoire, Coro Cervantes wins one gold medal, and for its passionate readings another. I am now burning with curiosity to know what music it will find to fill a third disc.
Ivan Moody


This survey of recent compositions from Spain and Latin America is simply superb. The Repertoire is extremely varied and embraces a wide range of compositional style and emotion. The choir is exceptionally persuasive and produces, at turns, both wonderfully controlled piano singing and armchair-rattling fortes. Highlights? Well, all of it really, but a favourite track would have to be Bustos (b.1949) Agnus Dei from his Missa Brevis Pro Pace. Here the closely knitted harmonies remind me of the work of William Albright whilst the juxtaposition of upper and lower voices is strangely reminiscent of Walton. You should really seek this one out.

MusicWeb Tuesday December 02 03

The Coro Cervantes is a London-based choir which specialises in music from the Iberian peninsula. This disc, their second on Guild, is a survey of 20th century Spanish (and South American) sacred music. The music on the disc rather divides into two categories: music by composers that most people have never heard of and music by composers that people have heard of but did not realise that they had written any liturgical music. As such it sheds a wonderful light on choral activity in Spain in the 20th century. If a lot of these pieces fall into the useful and effective category, rather than being inspired, this is probably because a lot of it was written in response to changes in need in the Spanish church. There were three congresses on religious music in 1907, 1912 and 1928 followed by the civil war which changed the landscape for ever. Then in 1962 the 2nd Vatican council changed the church’s attitude to religious music.

A Howells-like modality combined with a hint of plainchant seems to be the prevailing genre; pieces that would work well in a liturgical context but which do not always grab the attention when played end to end on a CD. There are some surprises. Ernesto Halffter’s ‘Oratio’ evinces no echoes of his great teacher, de Falla, whereas his nephew Cristobal Halffter’s ‘Panis Angelicus’ is a lovely setting for high voices, with some austerely beautiful textures. Frederic Mompou’s ‘Ave Maria’ lacks the beautiful simplicity of his more well known piano pieces. but Joaquín Rodrigo’s ‘Ave Maria’ revels in its rather interesting vocal textures. The name Padre Donostia, a capuchin monk, was new to me and he contributes a setting of ‘O Jesu mi Dulcissime’ which manages to avoid the obvious. Another surprisingly successful work is Pau Casal’s sombre setting of ‘O Vos Omnes’.

There are two organ solos on the disc. The first, by Jesus Guridi, has a vigorous opening which sounds as if Guridi was listening to too much Widor, but the piece succeeds in being both tricky and effective if not always very original. The second solo, by Xavier Montsalvatge is the first piece of real 20th century modernism on the disc. This fascinating work rather puts in the shade the preceding, effective but derivative works.

Abril’s two pieces, which follow the Montsalvatge, go some way to bridging the gap between the generic modality of the earlier pieces on the disc and the modernism of Montsalvatge. The disc finishes with the work which won the 1st prize in the 1997 ‘Juan Bautista Comes Choral Competition’. This piece, ‘Speculum in aenigmatem’ by Cesar Cano is a fascinating and thought provoking work and I would hope to hear more of Cano’s work.

Possibly the strongest piece on the disc is not even a liturgical one. Alberto Ginastera’s ‘Hieremiae prophetae lamentationes’, setting texts he selected from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, was written for concert use. Written when the composer was in exile in the USA in 1946, it opens the disc with a howl. This is a tremendous piece and it avoids being an obvious setting of the familiar words. The music can be rather tricky and there are just hints of Ginastera’s flirtation with serialism, but the choir sing the music with a wonderful sense of line and achieve a beautiful hushed tone in the middle movement. There is a sense that the piece stretches the choir to its limit but this only adds to the sense of unease and even discomfort that Ginastera manages to generate.

The performances are admirable for their clarity and accuracy; the choir is spot on musically in all this new music. If I have a criticism it is the lack of Latin tone in the pieces; instead we get a very English sound: clear and accurate, perhaps a little too cool. The Latin is not given a Spanish pronunciation which seems remiss.

The interesting disc opens a window on an entirely different musico-liturgical tradition. If not all the pieces are entirely interesting, they are welcome nonetheless for contributing to a beautifully performed comprehensive survey of Spanish 20th century liturgical music.
Robert Hugill

FILOMÚSICA noviembre de 2003

For their second CD, Coro Cervantes, conducted by Carlos Fernández Aransay, have chosen a programme of sacred music by Hispanic composers of the 20th century. As in their previous CD, “O Crux”, the pieces are brief, diversity of styles guarantees an enjoyable listening and many of the works will probably be new to the listener, as they are here recorded for the first time.

With the aim to offer as wide an overview as possible, the list of composers extends from consecrated names such as Joaquín Rodrigo, Federico Mompou, Jesús Guridi and Xavier Montsalvatge to some less known such as Nemesio Otaño, Fernando Ramacha and José Antonio Donostia. There is also room for some contemporary composers like Antón García Abril, Javier Busto and César Cano, and the Halffter saga are doubly represented by Cristóbal and his uncle Ernesto. As a matter of fact, the CD takes its title from the latter’s piece “Oratio”. Ernesto was a pupil of Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel and the author of the popular “Sinfonietta”. “Oratio” is a crescendo musical prayer for solo bass, alto and choir, and has some moments of great intensity.

To close the circle, we couldn’t go without some Latin American music, which symbolizes the linguistic and cultural ties between the old Spain and the New Continent. Aransay reminds us – in his article in the booklet- that many Spanish composers sought refuge in Latin America. The Argentinean  Alberto Ginastera, emigrated to the U.S. in 1945 after abandoning the Argentina of Perón. His Hieremiae prophetae lamentationes have been chosen by Aransay  to open this programme. Contrary to many of the simple and gentle pieces of this CD, this imposing work by Ginastera in three movements is surrounded by an atmosphere of restlessness, which appears both in the first movement’s aggressiveness and tension – of great theatrical effect- and in the initial absorption and final anxiety of the last one.  Precision, flexibility and perfect blending of voices are the features of Coro Cervantes, which here offers a reading full of light and shadows.

In a year which sees the 30th anniversary of the death in America of Catalan cellist and conductor Pau Casals, a true symbol of a musician’s political commitment, it is very appropriate to pay him homage as a composer with his brief motet O vos Omnes, written in a traditional idiom which, however, does not, avoid ample and evoking sonorities. Of similar beauty is the delightful Tantum Ergo for organ and choir by Guridi or the contemplative Ave Maria by Joaquín Rodrigo, half way between prayer and song with a touch of  tenebrism and a gorgeous finale with an invocation to Virgin Mary which floats suspended in the air.  Throughout the CD, Coro Cervantes show confidence, transparency, admirable balance, a just dose of expressiveness and exemplary phrasing.

We cannot end this review without urging you to listen to the two solo organ pieces enthusiastically played by Charles Matthews. Jesús Guridi is the author of the Finale for gran organ, an impressive and bombastic piece for organ that reminds one of the popular Toccata by Widor. The second piece, Aureola para una imagen de Ramón Amadeu by Xavier Montsalvatge, is a stunning work, which makes use of a broad variety of resources and has a sharp-edged  middle section. The organ of St. Jude’s -in the outskirts of London, where this disc was recorded last spring- has a sensational sound.

With this new title of unfrequented repertoire, which surveys our most recent choral tradition, Coro Cervantes confirms the good expectations created in their first CD. We now are curious to hear them face some of the Spanish great polyphonic compositions where they would rival other first rank choirs.
Ignacio Deleyto Alcalá

ABC CULTURAL 15 November 2003

A CD of most interesting repertoire. Spanish tradition of choral sacred music in the 20th century is very beautiful and important, but it is not in fashion.  The fact that 10 pieces of this CD are first world recordings proves it.  Although the rest is Spanish, the CD starts with the remarkable Lamentations by Jeremiah by Alberto Ginastera. From there on the path is fascinating, both varied and unified, and, almost always, of a truly religious feel. All of it sung in an excellent manner by the British choir Coro Cervantes.
Álvaro Marías

Diari Avui – Barcelona, 3 November 2003

From the peninsula we have this new CD by Coro Cervantes, conducted by Carlos Fernández Aransay, Oratio (Guild), a remarkable survey of the sacred music of the 20th century with works by Pau Casals, Montsalvatge, Homs and Mompou, which share the CD with composers like Guridi and García Abril.
Xavier Cester

MUSICWEB November 2003

I urge you to listen to this, for there is much fine stuff here and – most importantly – wonderful singing by all concerned.

20th century sacred music from Spain and Latin America. Well, not quite so indeed since Alberto Ginastera is the only Latin American composer featured here whereas Ernesto Halffter (as well as his brother Rodolfo) was born in Spain but settled in Mexico much later. So, most works here were composed by Spanish composers of various generations. Curiously enough, the oldest composer is Pau Casals whose O vos omnes was composed in 1932 whereas the youngest composer is César Cano, born in 1960, whose Speculum in ænigmatem , which ends this programme, was awarded 1st prize at the “Juan Bautista Comes” Choral Competition in 1997.

It would be completely idle on my part to detail all the works recorded here, though some definitely deserve some more comments. Let us say that most pieces are generally fairly simple, direct and quite beautifully made. Though some may be more familiar, a number of composers will be new to many of you. Such is Nemesio Otaño whose substantial miniature cantata Tota Pulchra for tenor, chorus and organ is featured here or José Antonio Donostia (pseudonym of José Gonzalo Zulaica y Arregui), a Capuchin apparently well-known as a folklorist and a musicologist, whose beautifully made O Iesu mi dulcissime for mixed chorus is sometimes redolent of Warlock’s bittersweet harmonies, or Fernando Remacha, a lesser-known composer from Navarra belonging to the same generation as Mompou, Guridi and Ernesto Hallfter, represented here by his fairly traditional, but quite moving Veni sponsa Christi beautifully set for women’s voices and organ.

As already mentioned, the oldest composer here, Pau Casals, is represented by his short anthem O vos omnes, a very fine setting of the three first lines only of the same text set by Ginastera. Needless to say, that his fine setting is definitely more traditional than Ginastera’s. Many of the other composers represented here roughly belong to the same generation born at the turn of the 20th Century. Ernesto Halffter’s Oratio from 1935 is an impressive, though rather austere setting for alto, bass and chorus. The name and work of Jesús Guridi has recently been brought into the public again thanks to a Naxos disc of some of his orchestral and vocal music. His fairly early Tantum ergo is a tender setting redolent of Fauré whereas his impressive Final para gran organo of 1960 brings Franck, Widor and Vierne to mind, which is not surprising since he – as many other Spanish composers of his generation – went and studied in Paris. Mompou’s beautiful setting Ave Maria somewhat reminded me of Rubbra’s Tenebrae Motets whereas Rodrigo’s own setting of the Ave Maria is also fairly simple, with some mild dissonance without which his music would not be what it is. Joaquím Homs’ setting of Les llums del món (“The Lights of the World” on a short Catalan text by S. Sánchez-Juan) for male voices is a real gem for all its brevity.

One of the real surprises here is Montsalvatge’s organ work Aureola para una imagen de Ramón Amadeu which often reminded me of Messiaen, with its abrupt changes of light and shades suggesting changing light through stained glasses. This quite impressive piece should appeal to enterprising organists looking for some worthwhile, unusual repertoire.

The younger generations are represented here by Cristóbal Halffter (the nephew of Ernesto and Rodolfo) with his quite early, uncharacteristic but extremely fine Panis Angelicus for female voices, Javier Busto, Antón García Abril and by the youngest man here César Cano whose Speculum in ænigmate is in a slightly more advanced, but still quite accessible idiom.

Ginastera’s Hieremiae prophetae lamentationes Op.14 were written in 1946-1947 in the States where he had settled after leaving Peron’s Argentina. The choice of texts and the setting certainly reflect the circumstances of the time, i.e. the composer’s exile and the aftermath of World War II. The opening section O vos omnes is tense, furious and even aggressive at times, whereas the second section Ego vir videns paupertam meam is more inward and brooding. The final section Recordare attempts at finding some hopeful outlet to the accumulated tension of the preceding section. Needless to say that this impressive setting is quite demanding, in terms of vocal strength, rightness and intonation, and is obviously meant for professional groups, unlike many other pieces here that could be sung – quite satisfyingly – by good amateur choirs. This work was new to me and I hope that the times are now ripe for recording companies to consider Ginastera’s large-scale choral-orchestral works that are still conspicuously absent from his discography.

I have been quite impressed by the London-based Coro Cervantes’s immaculate, precise and assured singing that makes all these pieces sound easy, though they are not always easy to sing at all. The recorded sound is superb and the production up to Guild’s best standards. I urge you to listen to this, for there is much fine stuff here and – most importantly – wonderful singing by all concerned.
Hubert Culot

Diverdi November 2003

Great choral repertoire

Carlos Fernández Aransay, founder and director of this excellent choir, insists on uncovering Spanish choral music. When he founded Coro Cervantes in 1995, under the auspices of London’s Instituto Cervantes, he decided that this professional British group – a new “sixteen”- would be exclusively dedicated to the performance of Iberian and Latin American music. And so it has been.

During the past eight years, Coro Cervantes has taken part in important festivals and commemorative events, mainly in the United Kingdom, but also as far as Mexico and Russia. We had the opportunity to talk about O Crux -their first CD for Guild- here in Diverdi Magazine. In O Crux, choral pieces were by composers from Sor and Arriaga to Vives and Falla, with a series of “heavy weights” like Eslava, Monasterio, Pedrell, Bretón, Albéniz, Granados, etc. It was selected by the critics of Gramophone as one of the CDs of the Year.

Now Aransay offers us again Spanish sacred choral music in a second CD. There is one exception: the Argentine Alberto Ginastera, whose Lamentations of Jeremiah, a true choral symphony, would on its own suffice to justify this CD. The Ego vir is probably the best of a CD that includes very beautiful pieces by  Pablo Casals, Nemesio Otaño, Ernesto and Cristóbal Halffter, Federico Mompou, Jesús Guridi, Padre Donostia, Joaquín Rodrigo, Joaquín Homs, Fernando Remacha, Antón García Abril, Javier Busto and César Cano.

The organ intervenes in the works by Otaño, Remacha and Guridi. The CD also includes the grandiose Finale for organ by the latter. This and the Aureola para una imagen de Ramón Amadeu, by Xavier Montsalvatge –also a solo organ piece- are played by Charles Matthews, first prize winner at the Ferencz Liszt Competition in Budapest.

What we have here is a priceless contribution to the unfrequented world of Hispanic 20th century choral music, very well represented by first rate figures, already consecrated, but whose pieces –in many cases – are here recorded for the first time. Aransay has still plenty where to choose from: Prieto, Iruarrizaga, Clavé, Gorriti, Antonio José, Mocora, etc, and more pieces by many of the composers already portrayed in these two CDs, which are also excellent from a vocal point of view because of their cohesion and intonation. They deserve every praise for the quality of the repertoire, which maestro Aransay knows how to perform in an excellent manner.
Andrés Ruiz Tarazona