Costanzo Festa turns up in music history survey classes as the composer of typical examples of the frottola, a light, chordal genre of secular music that preceded the emergence of the long tradition of Italian madrigals in the sixteenth century. From time to time we are assured that the simplicity of his frottole was an intentional thing; he wrote sacred polyphony as complex as that of any other composer of his day, and he was perhaps the only native-born Italian who could compete with the Flemish composers whom Italy's rich and powerful trucked over the Alps and installed in their sumptuous chapels. The two discs of motets here demonstrate the truth of this contention; they are sizable works, some in multiple sections, that reflect the influence of Josquin Desprez in their sequences of points of imitation, tied to the text. The dense booklet notes by Simone Monge trace in detail the sketchy evidence pertaining to Festa's life and suggest that he might have reversed the usual direction of composer travel and headed north to work with French composer Jean Mouton.
The two CDs' worth of motets are an attractive group, scored for groups ranging from three to six parts. The bright, straightforward Ave regina coelorum (CD 1, track 9) is a three-part piece whose little chunks of counterpoint fit together like clockwork, while some of the bigger and darker-hued works invite the listener to contemplate Festa's deployment of longer texts across sections of music. Unfortunately this isn't possible; no texts, English or Latin, are provided. This is definitely a disc aimed at specialists. The notes immerse themselves in scholarly controversies but have little to say about the music or how it's performed here in clear contrast to the norm -- why only one voice per part was used in all but one motet, and why instruments (a trombone, two early examples of which appear) were used. The English notes further confuse the listener with editorial errors (what's a "workshave?"). The Italian singers of Cantica Symphonia under Giuseppe Maletto and Kees Boeke (it is not clear what their respective roles were) are intonationally secure, and the varied flow of counterpoint is pleasant to listen to. Scholars may enjoy hearing this disc as they peruse the complete edition of Festa's works, but the average listener is advised to await a more accessible presentation of his sacred music -- or perhaps of a disc that attempted the fascinating challenge of bringing together his sharply contrasting sacred and secular languages.