International Record Review

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