Review by Walker Robinson

Francisco de Peñalosa: Lamentationes
New York Polyphony
BIS Records. Run Time: 56:36. $19.99.

Critically-acclaimed and Grammy-nominated choral ensemble New York Polyphony has released its fifth recording, entitled Francisco de Peñalosa: Lamentationes, highlighting sacred music from the late-15th- and early-16th century Iberian Peninsula. With breathtaking clarity of tone and superb ensemble, New York Polyphony brings the listener into the world of early Spanish polyphony — bringing together multiple simultaneous melo­dies to produce a richer sound. New York Polyphony’s artistic director Geoffrey Williams is also the new professor of church music at Nashotah House.

This recording centers on the work of Francisco de Peñalosa, a composer at the Court of Aragon in the 1510s and 1520s, particularly showcasing two of his Lamentations, as well as a Gloria and Agnus Dei from his Missa L’homme armé (one of six extant mass settings by the composer). His work was likely inspired by the leading Franco-Flemish composers of the previous generation (especially Josquin des Pres), and echoes both sacred plainsong as well as popular secular melodies such as the tune L’homme armé. Peñalosa gives his listeners stunningly beautiful, yet often quite simple, choral compositions of lasting quality. Made up of only four voices (countertenor, tenor, baritone, bass), New York Polyphony sings these gems with their characteristic piercing precision, yet also with full and rich sonorities.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah were an oft-set text for sung services during Holy Week of the Catholic liturgy, featuring particularly in the Tenebrae, the dramatic settings of matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Focusing on these texts of lament and desperation during the lead-up to the glory of Easter resurrection served as a means through which Christians could join Christ along their own via dolorosa – the path to crucifixion.

Numerous Renaissance composers wrote Lamentations settings for the cathedrals and courts of Europe. Peñalosa’s Lamentations are definitely simpler than those of many of his successors, such as Tomas Luis de Victoria. But within this simplicity lies a varied layering of voicings that is quite moving, alternating homophonic settings with two-, three-, and four-part polyphony. The stunning melismatic acrostics (Aleph, Beth, and Ghimel) between the scriptural verses are definite highlights of this recording.

In addition to these and other works by Peñalosa, the disc features music by his near contemporary Pedro de Escobar, and by the later Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero. A particular highlight of this recording is Guerrero’s Antes que comáis a Dios, a spritely triple-time choral reflection upon the worshipper’s meditations before receiving the eucharistic host. Covering a lesser-known generation of Iberian composers around the turn of the early sixteenth century, New York Polyphony provides the contemporary listener with a recording of superb quality and thoughtful programming that would be a welcome addition to any music collection.

Walker Robinson is a pediatrician and a member of the Chapel and Evensong Choirs at Duke Chapel, Durham, N.C.

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