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Cappella Gloriana's Renaissance Christmas

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 20, 2011.

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A Renaissance Christmas,
Cappella Gloriana, S. Sturk

(released on July 19, 2011)
CDBY | 69'49"
September is not too early to begin thinking about giving Christmas music as a season gift, but this new disc from Cappella Gloriana, an a cappella, mixed-voice choir based in San Diego, California that celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, is not an ideal choice.

The selection of music is worthy, with a bouquet of Christmas motets by a range of Renaissance composers set around the central jewel of the remarkable Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus by Cristóbal de Morales, a gifted Spanish composer active in the first half of the 16th century. This setting of the Latin Mass Ordinary, based on Jean Mouton’s motet of the same name, is still available in a superior version by James O’Donnell and the Westminster Cathedral Choir on an admirable disc released by Hyperion in the 1990s, when it was paired, as it is here, with Mouton’s motet. While the Westminster disc does not program the Mass with other Christmas motets, it would still make a better Christmas gift.

Under the direction of Stephen Sturk, Cappella Gloriana make some pretty sounds, and some pieces are better than others. These performances, however, are just not as beautiful in terms of balance, intonation and overall purity of sound as those of the best choirs available on disc today, like the Tallis Scholars, Stile Antico, Nordic Voices, Theater of Voices, or The Sixteen. Although recorded in favorable acoustics -- St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, and the Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California -- individual voices are heard too often in all sections (with some regrettable sounds from the tenors in the ‘Agnus Dei’ of the Morales, at around 2’45”, for example).

Nor does the ensemble intonation line up as it should, especially at entrances, where sections are not always at unity in the attack on new contrapuntal lines, with sopranos pulling sharp and male voices sinking flat. Most final chords settle into clean tuning, although dissonant beats sometimes take a short time to disappear. Harmonic structures within the contrapuntal texture do not coalesce as clearly as they should, or not at all.

Where the Westminster Cathedral recording of the Mass is spacious and reflective, Sturk’s half-hour-long reading opts for stronger rhythmic impetus, shaving a few minutes off the timing but also creating an almost breathless quality. In addition, there are some odd extraneous sounds (riser creaks? metal clinking?) in the first minute of Byrd’s O magnum mysterium, as well as awkward editing joins in the ‘Sanctus’ movement of the Mass (around 1’28”) and in the ‘Agnus Dei’ (around 4’24”).

Ten motets for Christmas and Marian feasts round out the disc, ranging from the familiar -- Victoria’s Quem vidistis pastores and Ne timeas Maria, Palestrina’s Alma redemptoris -- to less-often recorded works by Jacobus Gallus (more familiarly known as Handl) and Peter Philips. A motet by the Italian composer Francesco Corteccia, O regem caeli, is not known to me in any other recording, but it is not a sufficient reason to recommend this recording.

In addition, the disc is packaged in a simple cardboard sleeve, with minimal information on it. Full program notes and vocal texts are promised at the group’s website but were unavailable there at the time of this writing, which is the last entry in the list of reasons to give this recording a pass.

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