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GRAMOPHONE (05/2017)
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Reviewer: Edward Breen

This surprisingly impassioned selection of anonymous motets from a Venetian publication Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata (1543) has been carefully researched by Professor Laurie Stras of Southampton University. She believes them to be the earliest published polyphony for nuns, and their origin to be the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, home of Suor Leonora d’Este (1515-75), Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter.

The progressive nature of these motets will surprise and delight lovers of 16th-century music. Written for equal voices, they are contained within a twooctave compass promoting a rich, sonorous texture. Such textures are beautiful and supple in the hands of Musica Secreta, whose singers include leading voices of Renaissance music: Deborah Roberts, Sally Dunkley and Caroline Trevor. They are cushioned by the warm embrace of an organ and underpinned with a sinewy viol to provide a firm polyphonic meld.

The Easter Day motet, Hec dies quam fecit Dominus, is the most exciting piece on this disc: musically, because it is emblazoned with rapturous harmonic twists; and in performance because of its joyful exuberance of overlapping alleluias, where closely clustered points of imitation peal like church bells. Yet this narrow vocal compass doesn’t always dominate: there are, for instance, wonderfully delicate, almost fragile, soaring soprano lines in the miniature setting of Sicut lilium inter spinas. In the Magnificat antiphon Veni sponsa Christi, Musica Secreta are joined by the choir Celestial Sirens, who provide pleasing choral depth. However, in Felix namque es [sacra virgo Maria] this choral treatment highlights sibilant clusters that lead to rather scurrilous phrasing.

In short, these unexpectedly sensual motets form an immaculate collection of convent music that is both unrelentingly beautiful and fully captivating throughout.

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