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GRAMOPHONE ( 02/ 2019)
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Reviewer: Edward Breen

Here is a delightful disc made to an interesting recipe: Lamentation texts in alternation with joyful settings of Regina caeli sung with passion and puppyish intensity by a large and charismatic chamber choir directed by the éminence grise of Ars Perfecta, Peter Phillips. The result has the air of joyful adventure about it; proudly choral (as opposed to consort) but with absolutely captivating clarity.

Founded in 1997, El León de Oro (LDO) were the winners of Peter Phillips’s 2014 London International A Cappella Choral Competition under their regular director Marco Antonio García de Paz. Phillips has worked with them since, and this is their first album together. The programme presents Lamentations by Phinot (c1510-c1556), Lassus (c1530-1594) and Cardoso (1566-c1650) with motets, largely settings of Media vita or Regina caeli, by contemporaries Gombert (c1495-1560), Victoria (1548-1611) and Morales (c15001553). Their sound is soft and warm, and favours long, flowing phrases over bulging points of imitation. In short, they sound the way Mensurstrich looks. In comparison to many British ensembles their balance is slightly bottom-heavy but the lower voices make such an attractive sound in the resonant acoustic of Iglesia de Santiago el Mayor, Sariego, Asturias, that it often works in their favour. In particular, I love the passage ‘Cervicibus minabamur’ (‘Our necks were threatened’) in Phinot’s Lamentation setting in which the lower voices create great shimmering puddles of rich polyphony. The words are occluded but the sound is sumptuousness itself.

Victoria’s effusive Regina caeli is an interesting case in point. This is not the strident Victoria of British consorts, it is soft-footed and charming. While I still prefer a steelier soprano line, I find myself caught off guard by the simple passion of this choir. Less successful is Victoria’s Magnificat, which lacks the graceful touch found elsewhere on this album. LDO are perhaps at their best in the final motets, Morales’s Regina caeli and Palestrina’s Laudate pueri, where a broad, expansive approach brings a solidity and gravitas to their rejoicing.

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