Literes (Los) elementos
Capella de Ministrers is a group whose progress I have followed with the greatest interest since I first came across them shortly after their foundation 20 years ago. Their versatility is striking: rather like Hespèrion XXI, they cover a huge range of repertoire from the 12th century to the 18th, as these two releases, one of 16th-century polyphony, the other of a Baroque opera, vividly demonstrate.
Los Elementos by Antonio Literes (1673‑1747) is a reissue. It has lost none of its interest or vitality, and is a worthy competitor to Al Ayre Español’s 1997 recording. Italianate the work may be but it is also a prime example of the way in which composers working in Spain at the time incorporated their own traditions into the new Italian styles (or vice versa), most notably here the use of only female voices (though a baritone does appear, where one might have expected a countertenor), and in the appearance twice of verse-and-refrain structure (“Sienta la tierra” and “Dormida fatiga”). The work is hardly operatic in the Italian sense but that is the genius of the Iberian absorption of Italian style: it was transmuted into something quite individual.
The second disc, “Borgia”, is an anthology built around the figure of Pope Alexander VI (that is, Rodrigo de Borja, a native of Valencia who reigned 1492‑1503), and thus includes a good mixture of Iberian and Franco-Flemish repertoire. The first section of the disc is made up of an excellently performed set of secular villancicos featuring the lovely voice of Ruth Rosique and ending with Nunca fue pena mayor by Urrede (or Wreede), which cues in Peñalosa’s Mass setting based on it. The performance is grandiose, stately even, and employs instruments freely but with sensitivity – an approach that makes it complementary to, rather than a rival for, Westminster Cathedral Choir’s dramatically mystical approach.
There are other things on the disc that strike me as misjudged, notably the instrumentally biased performances of the Josquin motets O Domine Jesu Christe and Gaude Virgo Mater Christi, and I certainly wish that Escobar’s glorious Virgen Bendita sin par had been taken more slowly; but this imaginatively conceived anthology, outstandingly performed, will be an important addition to the shelves of anyone interested in the considerable riches of Iberian music of this period.