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Fanfare Magazine: 39:6 (07-08/2016) 
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Reviewer: J. F. Weber


This is a remarkable program, one of the most rewarding presentations of Renaissance sacred music to appear in many years. The title refers to the fate of Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498), the Dominican friar, a charismatic preacher against vice. He brought Florence to his feet, driving out the Medici, establishing a republic in 1494, and promoting the bonfire of the vanities, which destroyed anything that might be an occasion of sin. His preaching against corruption in the Borgia papacy brought him excommunication and condemnation; he was hanged and burnt in the public square with two confreres, with their ashes scattered in the Arno to prevent any veneration by his followers. In his cell the night before his execution, he wrote meditations on Psalm 50, “Miserere mei, Deus,” and Psalm 30, “In te, Domine, speravi.” The texts reflected his mood; “Have mercy on me, O God” and “In Thee, O Lord, I have hoped,” and were widely disseminated after his death. The lengthy and informative note is written by Patrick Macey, author of Bonfire Songs—Savonarola’s Musical Legacy (Oxford, 1998). Philip Cave adds a shorter note amplifying Macey’s remarks about the Josquin motet, which is the heart of the program. Macey’s analysis of this motet, over 30 pages in The Josquin Companion (ed. Richard Sherr, Oxford, 2000), was described by David Fallows as “a virtuoso performance.”

The two discs are parallel in structure. The first begins with Josquin’s setting of Psalm 50, then comes Palestrina’s setting of a responsory from the first week of Lent, which repeatedly quotes a melody from Josquin’s motet. Next is Le Jeune’s setting of the opening of “Tristitia obsedit me,” Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 30, and finally Lassus’ setting of the opening of “Infelix ego,” his meditation on Psalm 50. The second disc is similar: L’Héritier’s setting of Psalm 50, Gombert’s setting of Psalm 30, Clemens non Papa’s setting of the opening of the meditation on Psalm 30, and finally Byrd’s setting of the opening of the meditation on Psalm 50. Palestrina’s motet has the most subtle connection with Savonarola, for composing in Rome he could not be more direct in endorsing the excommunicated friar.

Philip Cave has done equally fine programs before this. He has 16 mixed voices this time, about the same as before, and the warm sound contrasts with one or two voices to a part that other Oxbridge ensembles prefer (Cave himself has sung with several of them). It seems that the idea of this program began with the Josquin motet, one of his masterpieces, a work of great length (17 and a half minutes here, 425 bars on paper), a truly massive motet at the time (and suggested as a model for Allegri’s later setting). It has been recorded 20 times already, beginning in 1941 by Guillaume de Van. The Byrd motet has been recorded by Andrew Carwood in his series (the last track on his final disc, 33:6) and by several others just lately, and the Palestrina responsory was just included in the latest Harry Christophers program (39:2). The Le Jeune, Gombert, and Clemens non Papa pieces show up on CD at least once, but a cursory check turned up nothing for the Lassus and L’Héritier works. Cave’s performances of the last five composers’ works will be new to virtually anyone who acquires this disc, and he matches the best of the other three. Altogether, the whole of this program is greater than the sum of its parts, a truly eye-opening revelation of Florence during the era of its greatness. For all the condemnation of Savonarola and his influence on the reformers of the following century, he has lately been proposed for beatification, the Church having come around to his point of view. Thanks to Philip Cave for this marvelous program, which is offered for the price of a single disc.

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