When the emperor Charles V – the first of the Spanish Habsburgs – chose Plus Ultra as his motto, he signalled the dawn of an age of discovery that would re-interpret the legendary Pillars of Hercules as a gateway to expanded horizons rather than, as his predecessors had thought, the limiting borders of the Mediterranean and the known world. Simply by discarding Non from the motto Non Plus Ultra, Charles V leant his imperial blessing to voyages of geographical and cultural discovery that continue to this day; with the stroke of a pen “thus far, no further” became “thus far, and further”. It was this spirit of discovery, of unveiling musical treasures from the past, of exploring unchartered polyphonic waters, that led Michael Noone and Warren Trevelyan-Jones to found, in 2001, the Ensemble Plus Ultra.
Their quest is the promotion of historically-aware performances of recently-discovered liturgical marvels of the Renaissance. Comprising “a crack squad of the finest British early music singers” (Early Music Today), the group is distinguished from other early music ensembles by its innovative performances of recently-unearthed treasures, especially those from the Spanish Golden Age repertory.
Hitherto unknown compositions by Morales, discovered by Michael Noone in the archives of Toledo Cathedral, were the focus of the group’s widely-acclaimed debut recording on the Glossa label, Morales en Toledo. It was followed by the first ever recording dedicated solely to the music of Fernando de las Infantas, the Spanish-born composer and theologian who settled in Rome in the 1560s and who published three volumes of motets in Venice a decade later. Michael Noone’s discovery of a cache of early works composed by Francisco de Guerrero formed the kernel of the group’s Missa Super flumina Babylonis, a CD that brought together the renowned wind players of His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts and the Spanish plainsong specialists Schola Antiqua.
Whilst Spanish music is the mainstay of Plus Ultra’s repertoire, they are equally at home performing music of other nations. One of their Glossa CDs presents a world première recording of a recently-discovered setting of the Song of Songs by the celebrated Renaissance theorist Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-90), edited by Cristle Collins Judd, and another CD presents the musical canons of Atalanta Fugiens (1617), a book of alchemical emblems by Michael Maier (1569-1622), the personal physician to the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II.
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Although Michael Noone has lived in five different countries on four continents he has always had Spain on the brain. The formative experience of singing Victoria’s responsories for Tenebrae at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was revelatory and decisive. He made immediate plans to visit the Spanish Primatial Cathedral in Toledo, and he has yet to exhaust its inexhaustible treasures. In 2007 Noone was honoured by Spain’s King Juan Carlos I from whom he received the coveted Premio Real Fundación de Toledo for his contribution to Spanish music.