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Music: Sacred Treasures of Christmas, Sacred Treasures of Spain (London Oratory Schola Cantorum)

31 December 2020

Roderic Dunnett hears new recordings from the London Oratory

THE delight of the two Hyperion discs Sacred Treasures by the London Oratory’s Schola Cantorum is not so much the Christmas disc’s opening track — sturdy and robust, and yet perhaps too fiercely edited — but the entrancing varied repertoire that the choir’s conductor, Charles Cole, who has had close connections since boyhood with Westminster Cathedral Choir, has marshalled for both discs.

Cole’s choices on Sacred Treasures of Christmas (CDA 68358), a generous 76 minutes, are in the league of the finest seasonal collections of mixed-composer recordings. His boys shine in the plainsong Alleluia Dies sanctificatus. From the Dutch Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, 1562-1621, Cole moves to one of the great predecessors, Jean Mouton (1459-1522), and, in his Nesciens mater, the boys’ and men’s exotic die-away is fabulously achieved. Then there are names that many know better: Hassler, with inspired lower voices in his Verbum caro factus est; the wondrous Samuel Scheidt; and Orlando Lassus — quite a stolid Resonet in laudibus.

Cole delves back in time to extended Tallis, famous Palestrina or Sheppard (Reges Tharsis, a knockout setting, maybe a tiny bit subdued here), and momentarily, the Oratory boys seem to stretch to the highest tessitura. But there are also the less obvious: the immensely important Dutch-Belgian composer Jacob Clemens non Papa (c.1510-c.56); and Giovanni Nanino (1543/4-1607), a member of the Sistine Chapel Choir, whose Diffusa est Gratia celebrates Candlemas.

This seasonal collection was recorded just before the coronavirus struck. The proficiency and careful training of men and boys is obvious throughout: this is without doubt cathedral standard — witness the wonderful, moving legato flow of Victoria’s daring motet Alma Redemptoris. The Schola Cantorum brings riches galore. If only Hyperion would put the track numbers in the sleeve notes, too.

As on the Oratory’s above recording, Sacred Treasures of Spain inevitably features the now popular Spaniard Francisco Guerrero (1528-99), four of whose anthems are included, and the familiar Alonso Lobo, as well as the marvellous Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553).

But Cole and his polished ensemble — and Hyperion — spring many surprises. You would have to hunt to find Ribera, Esquivel, and Vivanco (sensationally sung) all on one disc (CDA 68359). Melchor Robledo’s interspersed plainsong — was there ever a more tender Ad te clamamus? are just perfect. The rest of the disc —exemplary Victoria included — is of the same quality. If I hadn’t my copies already, I would rush out and buy both.

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