Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Francis Borgia, Fourth Duke of Gandia, Jordi Savall and Alia Vox offer a visually lavish and artistically comprehensive new release entitled Dinastia Borgia. Savall’s latest musicological/historical quest focuses on music from the time of the Borgia dynasty, including works by composers such as Isaac, Dufay and Morales, from Pope Alexander VI/6 and two of his children, Cesare and Lucrezia, through to Francis Borgia, Jesuit priest and, perhaps, composer. For five centuries, scholars have studied and debated the role of the Borgias in Renaissance history. Although their name is synonymous with Papal corruption and they were undoubtedly malevolent and immoral, as patrons of the arts, the Borgias were also instrumental in the period’s explosive growth of culture.
The Sixteen, bright stars of the Baroque, have plenty to say on 20th-century repertoire (witness their excellent Britten series on Collins). Underpin them with the BBC Philharmonic and it might seem a magic formula. Ives’s unearthly The Unanswered Question holds few problems for instrumental players weaned on Maxwell Davies – no more than do the brilliant wind roulades of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Deft BBC teamwork and a chamber articulation to woodwind and brass helps this Koussevitzky-commissioned masterpiece to shed its often hammy ‘big band’ sound, creeping closer to the subtle, leaner sonorities of his later choral works. It gains. The singing varies. Too many dynamic shifts sound prosaic or under-prepared; fortes are forced, with muddy results. The vocal blend (happier in lower voices) can seem haphazard and colours the Tippett, where the men’s roars – contrast the lovely, sensual soprano solo – seem crude. Get this disc, instead, for the rare, late Poulenc – his New York-commissioned Sept répons. It is a curiously under-recorded devotional work, bleeding with pathos yet pumping energy, its exoticism enhanced by slightly breathy, tender solos, and scintillatingly sung with just those crucial missing qualities of awe and freshness. A million times more refined than what goes before.