Saturday, May 29

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The Joy of a Shady Duke
CD Review: Music for the Duke of Lerma: First Vespers and the Salve Service as it was Celebrated in October 1617 in the presence of King Philip III and the Duke of Lerma. Gabrieli Consort and Players. Deutsche Grammophon, 2002.

On 7 October 1617, the spare, classical limestone church of San Pedro in Lerma, Spain, celebrated the anniversary of its dedication with a two-day festival honored by the presence of King Philip III and the local lord of the manor, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Riojas. Almost four hundred years later, Paul McCreesh and his Early Music ensemble the Gabrieli Consort vividly re-imagined the music of these courtly religious rites, in the same town, at the same church, using the same delightfully wheezy set of baroque organs, and even the same curling musical scores with their elaborate calligraphic notes.

Better known as the Duke of Lerma, Gómez de Sandoval's title at Philip's court in Valladolid was actually valido, literally "valet," but his power extended far beyond the king's wardrobe. He remains something of a shifty figure in the complex political whisperings that echoed in the stern halls of the Escorial in those fading years just after Spain's golden century drew to a close. Some even blame him in part for the somnolent waining of Spanish glory, and the verdict of history has been a harsh one, denouncing him for frivolous festivities, corrupt administration and indecision abroad. In fact, a recent novel, The Eternal Quest, places him as a villain in the midst of a re-telling of the Don Quixote saga.

Yet, for all his extravagances, Lerma introduced Pieter Paul Rubens to Spain through his startling and luminous equestrian portrait of the Duke, as well as encouraging Lope de Vega and collecting both music and musicians in his splendid household at Lerma. He transformed his hometown into a remarkable microcosm of the Christian state, with six new convents and monasteries and the newly-expanded collegiate church of San Pedro, his ducal chapel, well equipped with musical manuscripts and a staff of twelve canons, an organist, seven choristers and a wind band of minstriles to play during services. He also made one disastrous attempt to teach slaves to play musical instruments, abandoning the project after the scores returned back badly mangled, and then instead successfully patronized the brilliant musician-nuns of the new Dominican convent of San Blas, donating a viola di gamba that had belonged to his grandmother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria of Victoria Requiem fame.

By 1617, Lerma's star at court was fading fast, and he invited his royal master to visit on the occasion of the San Pedro festival in the hopes of charming his way back into courtly favor. The court visited for two weeks, entertained with spectacles, masques, comedies and processions, culminating in the two-day sequence of services at San Pedro. A Pontifical Mass was sung on Friday, October 6, followed by First Vespers of the Blessed Sacrament, which is where McCreesh's recording begins.

This two CD set is a joy to listen to: it's like the Escorial with its endless nooks and crannies and ranks of unexplored and forgotten cells, like the tiny royal bedroom with its door onto the vast sanctuary of the monastic church, grandeur stacked up next to intimacy. You can wander through stretches of it and discover some new twist of notes or melody you realize you've never heard before, for all the times you've listened to it.

The first CD is taken up entirely with the First Vespers, sung that grand October day under an intense Spanish blue sky in that pale limestone church. After beginning spectacularly with a Gabrielian four-choir motet Dixit Dominus, composed by the King's choirmaster, Mateo Romero. It has a distinctly Spanish energy that suffuses the Venetian style of the piece with a greater urgency than was ever achieved in San Marco, full of blasting cornets, sackbuts and the vast sound of the organ.

The psalm settings that follow--Miserator Dominus, Credidi, Beati Omnes, and Lauda, Jerusalem, as well as the Pange Linguam are more surprising and, after the bombast of Dixit Dominus, are surprisingly satisfying in their subtlety. They exemplify the forgotten Spanish practice of ad alternatim, where the chant choir would alternate with fabordones. These were polyphonic instrumental variations on the melody played by the minstriles on organ, harp, or the wonderful achingly bittersweet harmony of recorders and shawms. Indeed, this album probably marks the first time this method has ever been recorded. The single verses of chant seem to burst forth from the elaborate rings of strings and horns that swirl slowly around the ancient text.

The second CD, reproducing the elaborate procession which would have followed on Saturday to mark the translation of the Blessed Sacrament from the monastery of Santa Cecilia into the collegiate church, is equally beautiful in its slow sweetness. Rather than overblown pomp, McCreesh selects several meditative Renaissance cançiones for recorders, bajoncillos, violins, and, finally at the end as a punctuation of grandeur, several regal, slow-moving cornetts. It vividly recreates the courtly grace of the celebration: the route would have been hung with tapestries, while the cortége of the Sacrament would have been accompanied by prelates and nobles. Altars lined the way, where hymns, motets and dances would have been played to the Sacrament as It passed, while, more amusingly, the crowd would have been entertained en route by strolling dwarfs and giants.

Following the procession, we have another treat in the form of the Salve service, a peculiarly Spanish Saturday custom in honor of the Virgin Mary with a rather flexible form. Here, it consists of two motets to St. Peter and St. Sebastian, followed by a remarkable, grave Salve Regina written by Victoria, here sung by two choirs of vocalists, both organs, cornets, harps and a remarkable panoply of instruments. Here, as in the concluding Magnificat of the first CD, we can glimpse the true antique musical practice of the Renaissance, embroidering the splendor of vocal polyphony with instrumentation. For those of us used to the cold perfection of the Tallis Scholars, it may seem shocking, but here it's warm and magical. The famed Spanish harp is a surprisingly excellent compliment to the singing, pricking its way through the complex interlocking melodies of the polyphony.

It's clear that the Gabrieli Scholars are having a grand time playing in this historic venue; Paul McCreesh's amusing short essay in the liner notes talks both of the cantankerous organs and of firework displays over the church's slate steeple, of lechazo asado and the minutiae of their recording practices. This happiness is infectious, and from the first cançión to the splendid organ improvisations on Pange Lingua that ends the Vespers and the celebratory minstrile recessional at the end of the Salve. While Lerma came to a bad end, fleeing the Escorial under cover of night less than a year later, I'd like to think he would have enjoyed this reconstruction of his greatest festival. And, when you study Rubens's portrait of him, in his polished black armor and high stiff ruff, you can't help thinking that that handsome, melancholy Spanish face is about to break into a tearfully happy grin.

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