Concert reviews

Sacred Hearts, Secret Music

The dark tale of Serafina (Sophia Brumfitt) a young novice was full of longing, mysticism and even some humour, all illuminated by exquisite music of the period, Ferrara in 1570. The mixture of careful research and fine delivery, of both words and song, held the large audience in a fascinating spell. Two children (6 & 10 years old) in front of me were clearly entranced – the boy in fixed concentration, his younger sister’s attention wafting, like mine, with the focus of the drama for two hours. With such an appreciative young audience the future of this festival looks assured.
Latest 7Brighton Early Music Festival, 2011

It was more than good, it was superb. ‘Sacred Hearts’ tells the story of the convent of Santa Caterina, at its core sixteen year old Serafina, who pounds and cries against her cell doors as she is imprisoned in her new convent life. Yet this is not a solo piece – for constantly in the background of our main players are the women, and the life of the convent – and it is for this coming of despair, and condemnation, and the banal, and the divine that the show really deserved its encore. Sarah Dunant, the writer herself, and Deborah Findlay acted beautifully as did the singers of Music Secreta. Niamh Cusak very intensely, perhaps slightly affectedly starred too. However, I venture that it was the group’s so wonderful singing, in the truly atmospheric Manchester Cathedral, that really made you feel, there was something sacred in the air.
The MancunionManchester Literature Festival, 2011


Dressed as nuns, the singers complimented Ms Dunant’s reading perfectly. Yes, it was a sweltering day, yes we were in the heart of London, but for an hour the author’s words, the singers’ voices and the incredibly accomplished sound / lighting /stage arrangements transported us to a cold, austere 16th-century convent.
London Literature Festival blog, 2009

Four Weddings and a Funeral

“Four Weddings and a Funeral” took the form of a modern-day wedding party looking back to northern-Italian Renaissance ceremonies. While the concept had the audience smiling, many musical liberties were taken in pursuit of the theme…Clare Wilkinson’s searing rendition of the lament from Monteverdi’s Arianna [shone], in which she found a wealth of timbres to paint the crazed misery of the abandoned heroine. Particular praise is due to the Celestial Sirens and the BREMF Consort of Voices, who excelled in an excerpt from Cavalieri’s florid 1589 intermedio. This made a fascinating contrast to the lavish ceremonial music and the sacred and secular finally merged to give the most energised performance of the night, as the upper voices fought Monteverdi’s sensuous Si ch’io vorrei morire, sung by the men, with its sacred contrafactum O Jesu mea vita.
Early Music Today

Celestial Sirens

Cozzolani Vespers, 2009
Never has a group been more aptly named. The all-women choir… offered a ravishing selection of choral music to celebrate the first week of Advent… The centrepiece of the concert was 17th-century female composer Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s Christmas Vespers, with the remainder of the evening taken up works by Hildegard of Bingen, Lassus, Victoria and Palestrina…The bulk of the first half was devoted to the hauntingly beautiful Cozzolani pieces, stirringly led by soprano and conductor, Deborah Roberts. The works were expertly sung by this choir, who clearly relish the opportunity to perform works specifically written for female voices. The concert also exploited the fine acoustics of St Bartholomew’s – the echoing space perfect for this type of polyphony. The second half closed with an anthem delivered to the Madonna and Child in front of the altar, a moving finale to some ravishing choral work and a perfect antidote to the rainy December night.
Brighton Argus


4 stars “The music…was touchingly done.”

The Independent (review of South Bank Early Music Weekend performance, 2007)

“Dressed in nuns’ habits and just visible behind a gossamer screen, the women of Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens sang passionate love songs to Christ…. The singing was spine tingling, the casting superb.”
Brighton Argus (review of first performance, October 2006)

CD/Album Reviews

Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter

Early Music America

10/10 The album is, in a word, compelling. Despite the contrasts in range and texture, moving from full group to soloists, instruments or no, the recording feels not timeless but out of time, mesmerizing in the constant wash of imitative lines and the gentle rise and fall of each individual voice.... (click for more)

In a typical Renaissance city, the average person might not have had much access to music, at least not high “art” music, as many might conceive of it today. Without sufficient funds or status, people were limited in what they could regularly hear. But what every (Christian) person had access to was the church, and where there were churches, there was music. Especially in a city like Ferrara, churches were everywhere, as were monasteries and convents, which also had their fair share of music. It might be a surprise to some, but nuns were active singers, even composers, of Renaissance polyphony. And yet, due to the nuns’ religious position and also their gender, at least some of this music goes uncredited.

Enter Laurie Stras. In a sort of musicological Indiana Jones moment, Stras came across a book of motets published by Girolamo Scotto in 1543. The motets are anonymous and, moreover, written for equal voices (i.e., within a two-octave range). As Stras worked on a performing edition, she began to realize how well written they were, full of dissonant clashes reminiscent of Tallis or Gombert, exploring free imitation in a time when to do so for five voices was fairly novel. But the publisher did not name any composer. Stras’s study of the motets revealed textual clues that led to a likely point of origin: the monastery of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. Furthermore, other musical and textual references suggested to Stras a possible composer: Eleonora d’Este (1515-75).

Eleonora spent almost her entire life in that monastery; after her mother, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, died when she was 4, she was sent there, and at 8 she proclaimed that she wished to become a nun. By 18, she was the abbess. The entire Este family comprised music lovers, many also virtuoso performers and composers; Leonora was her mother’s daughter in that regard. As not only a nun and a woman, but also a noble to boot, it is possible that she composed the works but wanted to keep her identity hidden. Such is Stras’s hunch, and a convincing one at that.

Sixteen of the motets are recorded on this album. Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens use a variety of voice combinations, along with organ and gamba, which a convent would have employed to reinforce or provide lines lower than the range of the voices they had at hand. Of particular note is the choice to feature women of different ages to better reflect a convent’s typical personnel.

The album is, in a word, compelling. Despite the contrasts in range and texture, moving from full group to soloists, instruments or no, the recording feels not timeless but out of time, mesmerizing in the constant wash of imitative lines and the gentle rise and fall of each individual voice. The little dissonances Stras mentioned surprise as well as uplift. “Sicut lilium inter spinas” is a tiny, perfect gem, whereas the lengthier pieces, like “Angelus Domini descendit,” seem to reinvent themselves every minute or so — here imitating bells, there borrowing a chant or even a singing exercise. It’s an album as beautifully performed as it is researched, and one can only hope that more “anonymous” works get such attention.
Karen Cook


Classics Today

10/10 The music is of such quality and the singing of such beauty and refinement that we’re not likely to care so much who wrote it: the mystery perhaps makes it even more compelling–truly ethereal. ... (click for more)

Artists and record labels often attempt to attract attention to their projects with innovative programming, intriguing/provocative titles, or both. Here’s one–and it does catch your interest. If the title doesn’t get you, the subtitle–“Princess, nun, and musician; Motets from a 16th century convent”–presents an irresistible challenge to the curious choral music fan. Who exactly was Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter? Did she actually write some newly discovered motets? Are they any good? Is this whole thing just a clever scheme to get us to listen to some deservedly obscure works?

As often happens with these things, it was the performers, not so much the promise of the musical content that drew me to listen right away. The name Deborah Roberts listed on the cover as one of the musical directors suggested that this likely would be a project well worth hearing. Roberts is a distinguished veteran of the Tallis Scholars (from the 1980s and ’90s); she is not only a director and singer here, but she prepared some of the performing editions used on the recording. Further, she is joined by another longtime Tallis Scholars soprano and noted musicologist, Sally Dunkley, along with a current member of the same group, alto Caroline Trevor.

These three perform along with seven other women singers and two instrumentalists–all very active in various groups in the U.K. and Europe–in the ensemble Musica Secreta, which for almost three decades has been concerned with the “discovery and interpretation of music for and by early modern women.” The disc’s other group, Celestial Sirens, is a semi-professional women’s choir (here 15 voices) founded by Roberts that specializes in just the type of music we hear on this program.

So what exactly is the music? On the one hand, it’s a remarkable discovery, drawn from “an obscure book of motets” published in Venice in 1543. On the other hand, it’s possible that these exceptional works, all by an anonymous composer (or composers), had nothing to do with Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter, Leonora d’Este. The possible connection–and there are several tantalizing clues, explained in the first-rate notes by co-director Laurie Stras–begins with the music’s purpose (“the earliest published polyphony…intended for nuns”), and extends to the prevalence of convent choirs in the 16th century, and to the fact that Leonora, an accomplished musician, spent her life at the Corpus Domini convent in Ferrara, where the famed Este family ruled and worshiped for hundreds of years. (Lucrezia Borgia herself is among many members of that family buried in the convent.) It’s certainly possible that Leonora would have sung some of this music, but Stras also speculates regarding Leonora’s possible authorship and about why she may have remained anonymous.

The music is of such quality and the singing of such beauty and refinement that we’re not likely to care so much who wrote it: the mystery perhaps makes it even more compelling–truly ethereal. Especially interesting is the form of these motets: they are written for “equal voices” in five parts, freely imitative and contained within a vocal range of two octaves. Again, whoever wrote them was a composer of exceptional skill and inventiveness. The melodic and imitative sophistication does not preclude the use of some spicy dissonances in several of the works that these singers happily embrace and enjoy.

Many of the 16 works included here are fairly substantial–five to six minutes (one is more than 12)–but among the most strikingly beautiful is one of the shortest and simplest: Sicut lilium inter spinas (sound clip), with its high soprano and transparent texture. Regarding performance (Stras and her colleagues spent seven years studying these manuscripts) Stras explains that they adopted approaches that reflect the realities of convent performance, using varying numbers of singers for different pieces (some are with full choir, others with one or two voices to a part) and sometimes including instruments (organ and bass viol). This variety not only makes musical/historical sense, but it enhances and enriches the listening experience–and you easily accept Stras’ claim that the recording “recreates the remarkable sound world of the 16th-century Italian convent, as preserved in the [1543 motet collection]”. Highly recommended.
David Vernier


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 ... (click for more)

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 irresistible.
Fatima Lahham


Gramophone Magazine

This surprisingly impassioned selection of anonymous motets from a Venetian publication Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata (1543) has been carefully researched by Professor Laurie Stras of Southampton University ... (click for more)

This surprisingly impassioned selection of anonymous motets from a Venetian publication Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata (1543) has been carefully researched by Professor Laurie Stras of Southampton University. She believes them to be the earliest published polyphony for nuns, and their origin to be the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara, home of Suor Leonora d’Este (1515 75), Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter.

The progressive nature of these motets will surprise and delight lovers of 16th-century music. Written for equal voices, they are contained within a two-octave compass promoting a rich, sonorous texture. Such textures are beautiful and supple in the hands of Musica Secreta, whose singers include leading voices of Renaissance music: Deborah Roberts, Sally Dunkley and Caroline Trevor. They are cushioned by the warm embrace of an organ and underpinned with a sinewy viol to provide a firm polyphonic meld.

The Easter Day motet, Hec dies quam fecit Dominus, is the most exciting piece on this disc: musically, because it is emblazoned with rapturous harmonic twists; and in performance because of its joyful exuberance of overlapping alleluias, where closely clustered points of imitation peal like church bells. Yet this narrow vocal compass doesn’t always dominate: there are, for instance, wonderfully delicate, almost fragile, soaring soprano lines in the miniature setting of Sicut lilium inter spinas. In the Magnificat antiphon Veni sponsa Christi, Musica Secreta are joined by the choir Celestial Sirens, who provide pleasing choral depth. However, in Felix namque es [sacra virgo Maria] this choral treatment highlights sibilant clusters that lead to rather scurrilous phrasing.

In short, these unexpectedly sensual motets form an immaculate collection of convent music that is both unrelentingly beautiful and fully captivating throughout.
Edward Breen


Sacred Hearts, Secret Music


Palestrina is placed alongside Rore and a sense of scholarship as well as intense musicality runs through the whole: fascinating and lovely.

Get the book, get the CD. Yes, in what is either a clever marking idea or a genuine effort to provide a multi-dimensional artistic experience, this disc is the official soundtrack to Sarah Dunant’s book Sacred Hearts. Palestrina is placed alongside Rore and a sense of scholarship as well as intense musicality runs through the whole: fascinating and lovely. James Irvine

This is billed as a soundtrack: not to a film, but to Sacred Hearts, a novel by Sarah Dunant. The book – which I haven’t read – is set in a Benedictine convent in Ferrara in 1570. The music, which is a mixture of plainchant and polyphony, follows the span of the novel from Christmas to Easter.

The question of who sang the tenor and bass parts of the music that Vivaldi composed for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà has been aired recently in Vivaldi’s Women, a television documentary that deserves a wider circulation on DVD. The programme showed that it was possible for women to sing the lower parts at pitch. In their booklet-note, Laurie Stras and Deborah Roberts propose different soloutions: first, to transpose those parts up an octave where necessary, with continuo instruments preserving the written bass. This works well in the Palestrina Mass, but the octave doublings in Rore’s Magnificat sound strange and unconvincing to my years. Much better is the second solution, followed in Surge, illuminare and the Lamentations: here the bass it taken only by the continuo. Stras and Roberts also advocate the ornamentation of solo lines. they apply this to the Mass, where it sounds both natural and beautiful; indeed the whole piece is an aural feast.

The plainchant is sung by permutations of the Sacred Hearts Schola – essentially Musica Secreta without the instruments – and Celestial Sirens, a fine amateur choir. The last item is Rore’s Regina caeli laetare, Frances Kelly’s harp weaving round the soprano line. Magical. Richard Lawrence


Classic FM Magazine ★★★★★ Exceptional

Irresistible... Strongly recommended.

Author Sarah Dunant and her novel Sacred Hearts supplied direct inspiration for this compelling album of music that might have been performed by a convent of Ferrarese nuns in the 1570s. She recalls in her liner notes how discovering the work of Musica Secreta did much the same for the book’s development. The cross-fertilised fruits of their collaboration prove irresistible and, thanks to the honest-to-goodness sound of the recording and unaffected music-making, mercifully free from artificial additives. Highlights include a heartfelt performance of Palestrina’s “Veni sponsa Christi” and a sensuous reading of his Lamentations. Strongly recommended. Andrew Steward


International Record Review

The performances are sensitively imagined and vividly realized interpretations ... remarkably delicate but with a kind of muscular dignity that is extremely moving.

Best-selling novelist Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts is set in 1570 in Santa Caterina, a convent in Ferrara filled with noble women “married to Christ because they cannot find husbands on the outside.” When 16-year-old Serafina threatens to shatter the tranquility of the nuns’ lives, she is placed in the care of the scholarly Suora Zuana, but as they start to bond, two mysterious figures are watching …

In 2007 Dunant contacted Musica Secreta, which she had heard previously, with the idea of recording a “soundtrack” for the book. The result was a project that members Laurie Stras and Deborah Roberts in their extensive booklet notes say was “more about investigating possibilities than it was about looking for definitive performances.”

Musica Secreta was formed by Tallis Scholars’ member Deborah Roberts in 1990 in order to explore the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century music written for female singers. It comprises four solo voices and a harp/organ/bass viol continuo; its previous releases include two recordings of music written for the famous concerto di donne of Ferrara, as well as by Barbara Strozzi and the nun composers Lucrezia Vizzana and Margarita Cozzolani.

Joining Musica Secreta for this disc is Celestial Sirens, an amateur and semi-professional womens’ voice choir based on the South Coast of England, also founded by Roberts. One of its purposes is to help Musica Secreta explore convent music. The idea in this instance was to avoid a preponderance of young women brought through the choral tradition who might have preconceptions about how the music should sound and instead form a mix of voices, both young and mature and with different levels of training, “but all competent and confident, imagining the sort of blend of skill and experience that one might find in a moderately prosperous convent.”

All this makes for an interesting and textured journey through Palestrina’s Missa Veni Sponsa Christi and Lamentations for Holy Saturday , Cipriano de Rore’s Magnificat and motets by the same composers, as well as chant for the feast of St Agnes. The density of the vocal forces varies; the solo voices in the Palestrina Mass ornament their lines; the bass parts are transposed up an octave while being played in their original pitches by a continuo instrument.

The performances are sensitively imagined and vividly realized interpretations; by no means perfect but all the more authentic for it. I especially enjoyed the contrasts between the delicate Alma Redemptoris Mater of Palestrina, in which the superb mezzo Clare Wilkinson is accompanied by organ and harp, and the following Lamentations , which feature the combined forces of Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens together with continuo – still remarkably delicate but with a kind of muscular dignity that is extremely moving.

Moving also is the fact that this would have been founder member Tessa Bonner’s seventh disc with Musica Secreta. Apparently she enjoyed Dunant’s novels and was very excited about this project, She passed away in December 2008 and this recording is dedicated to her memory.
Robert Levett


The Observer

This CD wins out through pure sound, fervour and refreshing simplicity.

Inspired by Sarah Dunant’s new novel, Sacred Hearts, about a young nun in Renaissance Italy, this disc concentrates on music probably sung by convent choirs in the 1570s. This includes chant sequences of the kind written centuries earlier by Hildegard of Bingen, Palestrina’s “Missa Veni Sponsa Christi” and &dquot;Lamentations for Holy Saturday&dquot;, and motets by Rore. The excellent ensemble Musica Secreta specialises in music written for female voices and is joined by the Sussex choir Celestial Sirens. Performed without vibrato or unnecessary gesture, the CD wins out through pure sound, fervour and refreshing simplicity. Fiona Maddocks


Dangerous Graces

Early Music Review

The most persuasive argument in favour of the techniques used on this new CD is that the music is utterly captivating...

After the sharp religious ecstasy of Cozzolani’s convent motets, Musica Secreta have turned to the madrigals of de Rore, Luzzaschi and de Wert, giving them, as ever, a feminine twist. Through judicious transposition, these erotic madrigals for mixed voices become densely entwined duets, trios and quartets for the female voice, suspended over a soft mattress of plucked and bowed continuo. Dangerous? No. But very seductive, whether in concert Dolci sospiri ardenti or alone Il dolce sonno. Were Botticelli’s Primavera to burst into song, she would probably sound like this.
Independent on Sunday

The most persuasive argument in favour of the techniques used on this new CD is that the music is utterly captivating. The music is by Giaches de Wert, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Cipriano de Rore. In some of these the lower parts of polyphonic works have simply been transposed up, with instruments providing a basso seguente. In others instruments take the place of the lower voices, so that de Wert’s four-voice madrigal Il dolce sonno becomes an exquisitely beautiful and expressive piece for solo voice and lute, and de Rore’s O sonno, o della queta humida ombrosa turns from another four-part madrigal into a haunting piece for solo voice and bass viol. Between those extremes, de Wert’s five voice madrigal Non è sì denso veloturns into a piece for three female voices, with instruments taking the lower part. Here the replacement of the lower parts with instruments lends a wonderful clarity to the texture and enables the beauty of the individual lines to shine through in a way which sounds remarkably like the early baroque. Maybe this is actually the point: in turning works for mixed voices into works for fewer (female) singers and instruments, these sixteenth century women were also simplifying the textures of the music and giving greater scope for expression in a way that was to become the hallmark of the new “baroque” style. Dangerous Graces is a fascinating CD.


A refreshing sound in the sometimes sexless world of early music. . . this is a unique collection restoring with seriousness and integrity a forgotten part of female musical history.

A splendidly evocative, and historically vital, disc, beautifully performed.

A most aristocratic entertainment.
HMV Choice

Deeply satisfying.
The Scotsman

Spine-tingling. . . unbearably poignant
New Zealand Herald


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