Leonora d'Este: Princess, Nun, and Musician
Fatima Lahham reviews Musica Secreta's new release Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter for Revoice! Magazine
Fascinating historical contexts for musical works are no guarantee of great performances or even of musical quality, but this recording took my breath away with its sheer depth of music making combined with such an exciting historical premise.
As Laurie Stras explains in her engagingly written liner notes, the CD explores an anonymous book of motets published in Venice in 1543: the Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata. While the works in this book are anonymous, there are several factors that lead us to associate them with the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. This convent was the home of Suor Leonora d'Este (1515-1575), who announced her intention to become a nun aged eight and may have been the composer of this book of motets.
Either way, the disc sets out to recreate the sound world of the sixteenth-century Italian convent, using the vocal forces of Musica Secreta (6 sopranos, 2 mezzo-sopranos, and 2 altos) and the Celestial Sirens (9 sopranos and 6 altos) alongside Claire Williams on organ and Alison Kinder on bass viol.
While one might think that the sound of a choir made up of only upper voices would be predictable, I found myself marveling at the wealth of contrast in textures and colours. Somehow, not a single voice seems to stray from the flawless blend of matching timbre and good intonation, constantly delighting a listener with hidden melodic shapes thrown into relief by the similar ranges, while the viol and organ magically take on vocal qualities while maintaining their own instrumental identities to seamlessly support and uplift the choir.
Throughout the recording, I get the keen impression that all the musicians are alive to every nuance of the lines they sing and play, unafraid to enjoy each dissonance, glorify every unusual sequence, and characterise every single piece. In the week since I started listening to the CD, my discovery of new musical moments and corners that make me smile and restart the track have been unending: this is one of those discs that only improves on an already very favourable acquaintance. On Musica Secreta's website I found a clip of one of my favourite pieces on the CD: Haec Dies Quam Fecit Dominus which seems to illustrate well not only the thrill of this music but the infectious enjoyment with which it is conveyed.
While this music needs no advocacy, Stras and Musica Secreta are so musically and academically articulate that the end result is irresistable. The CD is out from today - waste no time in ordering it HERE! You can also look out for appearances from Laurie, Musica Secreta, and Lucrezia Borgia on BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week show from March 6th: The Women of Renaissance Ferrara.