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Polyphony For Nuns
Review by:  David Vernier,
Artistic Quality:  10
Sound Quality:  10

Artists and record labels often attempt to attract attention to their projects with innovative programming, intriguing/provocative titles, or both.  Here’s one–and it does catch your interest.  If the title doesn’t get you, the subtitle–“Princess, nun, and musician; Motets from a 16th century convent”–presents an irresistible challenge to the curious choral music fan.  Who exactly was Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter?  Did she actually write some newly discovered motets?  Are they any good?  Is this whole thing just a clever scheme to get us to listen to some deservedly obscure works?

As often happens with these things, it was the performers, not so much the promise of the musical content that drew me to listen right away.  The name Deborah Roberts listed on the cover as one of the musical directors suggested that this likely would be a project well worth hearing.  Roberts is a distinguished veteran of the Tallis Scholars (from the 1980s and ’90s); she is not only a director and singer here, but she prepared some of the performing editions used on the recording.  Further, she is joined by another longtime Tallis Scholars soprano and noted musicologist, Sally Dunkley, along with a current member of the same group, alto Caroline Trevor.

These three perform along with seven other women singers and two instrumentalists–all very active in various groups in the U.K. and Europe–in the ensemble Musica Secreta, which for almost three decades has been concerned with the “discovery and interpretation of music for and by early modern women.” The disc’s other group, Celestial Sirens, is a semi-professional women’s choir (here 15 voices) founded by Roberts that specializes in just the type of music we hear on this program.

So what exactly is the music?  On the one hand, it’s a remarkable discovery, drawn from “an obscure book of motets” published in Venice in 1543.  On the other hand, it’s possible that these exceptional works, all by an anonymous composer (or composers), had nothing to do with Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Leonora d’Este.  The possible connection–and there are several tantalizing clues, explained in the first-rate notes by co-director Laurie Stras–begins with the music’s purpose (“the earliest published polyphony…intended for nuns”), and extends to the prevalence of convent choirs in the 16th century, and to the fact that Leonora, an accomplished musician, spent her life at the Corpus Domini convent in Ferrara, where the famed Este family ruled and worshiped for hundreds of years.  (Lucrezia Borgia herself is among many members of that family buried in the convent.)  It’s certainly possible that Leonora would have sung some of this music, but Stras also speculates regarding Leonora’s possible authorship and about why she may have remained anonymous.

The music is of such quality and the singing of such beauty and refinement that we’re not likely to care so much who wrote it:  the mystery perhaps makes it even more compelling–truly ethereal.  Especially interesting is the form of these motets:  they are written for “equal voices” in five parts, freely imitative and contained within a vocal range of two octaves.  Again, whoever wrote them was a composer of exceptional skill and inventiveness.  The melodic and imitative sophistication does not preclude the use of some spicy dissonances in several of the works that these singers happily embrace and enjoy.

Many of the 16 works included here are fairly substantial–five to six minutes (one is more than 12)–but among the most strikingly beautiful is one of the shortest and simplest:  Sicut lilium inter spinas (sound clip), with its high soprano and transparent texture.  Regarding performance (Stras and her colleagues spent seven years studying these manuscripts) Stras explains that they adopted approaches that reflect the realities of convent performance, using varying numbers of singers for different pieces (some are with full choir, others with one or two voices to a part) and sometimes including instruments (organ and bass viol).  This variety not only makes musical/historical sense, but it enhances and enriches the listening experience–and you easily accept Stras’ claim that the recording “recreates the remarkable sound world of the 16th-century Italian convent, as preserved in the [1543 motet collection]”.  Highly recommended.