Following my post on suggested music for Advent and Christmas, here is a short guide to some appropriate works for the coming season of Lent, and for Holy Week.
The annual performance of Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus, is in many respects the musical opening of the season of Lent. There are many fine recordings of this work. Of all of them, the 2006 Sarum Voices recording is very enjoyable, over and above (to my mind at least) many more established groups. If you want something really special, though, it is to the 2001 Ensemble William Byrd recording with Graham O’Reilly that I would turn. This is based on a couple of late 19th-century Vatican manuscripts and makes extensive use of the highly elaborate (and much earlier) abbellimenti – the infamous Sistine Chapel ornamentation which made the work so popular, and so guarded. The recording also makes use of some beautiful renditions of the accompanying chant (the antiphon Christus factus est, for example) and contains a fine recording of Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater with the exquisite Eia mater, fons amaris, and Fac ut animæ donatur sections. You can listen to the performance of Allegri here and read more about the edition here.
The vast quantity of music for the office of Tenebræ is also a great source for music during this season. In a contemporary mould, James MacMillan’s Tenebræ responsories have recently been released by Hyperion, sung by the splendid Westminster Cathedral Choir. The recording also includes his resounding Tu es Petrus, sung in the presence of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI during his 2010 visit to the United Kingdom. A video of that can be seen here. Other settings and performances that I enjoy include those by Carlo Gesualdo sung by The Hilliard Ensemble (click here), the setting by Cristobal de Morales sung by the incomparable Doulce Memoire (click here), and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s 1585 complete set of music for Holy Week and the sacred triduum performed by La Colombina (click here).
That should get you started! At some stage I will try to post some recommendations for settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and also some more English polyphony that might aid our Lenten observance. In that vein, I will leave you with William Byrd’s heart-rending setting of Ne irascaris, Domine for five voices, found in his 1589 Cantiones Sacræ. Here is a performance of the motet by Stile Antico, an English choir who I will be fortunate to hear (thanks to a generous godmother!) at the Boston Early Music Festival in Cambridge, Mass., this coming Friday… snow permitting! If you’re used to ecclesiastical Latin, listen to the impressive percussive effect that comes from the English pronunciation of the text (Si-vi-tas Sancti, &c).