“ZUGUAMBE – Music for Liturgy from the Monastery of Santa Cruz de Coimbra c. 1650” – Capella Sanctae Crucis/ Tiago Simas Freire – Harmonia mundi HMN 916107 (Harmonia nova #3), 57:31 ****:
By my count, this is the fifth disc in the Harmonia Nova series from Harmonia mundi. This exploration intends to spotlight up and coming artists in various genres. One of the most competitive these days is surely early music, where we now enjoy such a plethora of options that can only launch an early-music aficionado into the third heaven.
This program features several vilancicos, a musical/poetic form popular from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries that became associated with Christmas carols. They were indeed secular in nature until about the sixteenth century, when they acquired a sacred character in Spain and its colonies in Latin America. In that particular locale, they drew from rhythms and dialects from the local population and were quite popular. Here we have them serving as interspersed “tropes” between established sacred compositions by Agostinho da Cruz, Diego de Alvarado, Dom Jorge, and Pedro de Cristo.
The music all comes from the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, one of the major institutions with an important collection of sacred music in Europe. It served as the center of the Augustinian Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, dating back to the establishment of Portugal as a kingdom in the twelfth century. The pieces, ranging from unaccompanied monody to polychoral writing, acts as an imprint of the activity of the monastic musical practices for five centuries, often difficult to separate the sacred from the secular, and showing that both were incorporated into the life of the church at that time.
This program reconstructs an imaginary church service where the Latin works interweave with vernacular and instrumental pieces drawing on the three feasts of Nativity, Corpus Christi, and Ascension, mostly focusing on Matins, and most likely unique, as far as we can tell, to Portugal. The singing is complex, brilliant, and utterly devotional in tone, rendered with authority and genuine expressivity by these young performers.
For those interested in early music, this is quite revelatory and will provide enormous pleasure!