New York Polyphony Deliver a Timely World Premiere From 500 Years Ago

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo!
Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium
Princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo

Those are the opening lines of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, set to music by Spanish composer Francisco de Peñalosa in the early 1500s. New York Polyphony sing the world premiere recording with radiance and gravitas on their most recent album Lamentationes, streaming at Spotify. Here’s a decent translation from the liner notes:

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she who was great among nations
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave

Sound familiar?

But all hope is not lost! The recent push in the New York State legislature to strip Andrew Cuomo of his authority and restore democracy could have game-changing implications for the state of the arts here, and ultimately, around the world. If all goes well we might actually be able to see this once-ubiquitous quartet sing their irrepressible mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge somewhere in this city this year.

The ensemble – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – bookend their Peñalosa premiere around a brief, rather somber stabat mater by his contemporary, Pedro de Escobar. They open the album’s centerpiece slowly and stately, rising to the daunting demands of the composer’s range throughout this requiem for Jerusalem in the wake of the attack by Babylonian forces in 568 BC. Their unswerving resonance builds a hypnotic ambience as the music and the exchanges of phrases between voices grow slower, rising with considerably greater angst as the first part winds out. The second half, referencing divine retribution, is slower. more tersely focused, and also more immersively haunting as it goes on. It is a shock this music hasn’t been recorded before.

There are a handful of other, shorter Peñalosa compositions and excerpts from masses here as well. Texts from his Missa L’homme armé, based on a folk melody popular at the time, offer warner, hypnotically circling harmonies, stirring plainchant-inflected cadences, and benedictory resolution.

The album also includes a pair of works by a somewhat later Spanish composer, Francisco Guerrero: a wavelike 1555 setting from the Song of Songs and a brief, rousing vernacular work from 1598.