Contrapunctus / Owen Rees

Libera nos: The Cry of the Oppressed

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The biblical narratives of freedom from oppression have held resonances for people from the time of their composition to the present, but this release by the innovative 12-voice British choir Contrapunctus focuses on two situations: the Protestant dominance of England during the reign of Elizabeth I and James I, and the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs over Portugal at roughly the same time. This thematic approach, comparing the responses of different composers to similar texts and similar historical circumstances, is rarely employed in Renaissance a cappella performances, but it is especially effective here. The individual pieces have plenty of social and political significance, explored in the booklet notes by director Owen Rees. These are fascinating enough, but you can also listen to the album without delving into that level of detail. The biblical texts (Byrd's Infelix ego is a setting of a speech by the Italian religious firebrand Savonarola) are mostly prayers for redemption in the midst of suffering. But each composer treats this idea differently, giving the listener a good idea of how Renaissance listeners heard stylistic differences among composers. There are some extraordinary and little-known pieces, such as Manuel Cardoso's intensely chromatic and openly painful Sitivit anima mea (track 5); in total contrast is the contrapuntally virtuosic Laboravi in genitu meo of Martin Peerson (track 6). At the center of it all stands Byrd, whose imposing, dignified works have rarely received performances of such balance and power. An exceptional Renaissance choral release.

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