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"Christmas in Puebla"

Siglo de Oro
Dir: Patrick Allies

rec: Jan 8 - 10, 2020, London, Londen, All Hallows, Gospel Oak
Delphian Records - DCD34238 (© 2020) (67'39")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Francisco López CAPILLAS (1614-1674): Cui luna, sol et omnia; Joan CEREROLS (1618-1680): Serafin, que con dulce harmonía, Marizápalos a lo Divino; Gaspar FERNANDES (1566-1629): Tleycantimo choquiliya; Juan Gutiérrez DE PADILLA (1590-1664): A la xácara xacarilla; Christus natus est; Deus in adiutorium meum intende; Joseph fili David; Missa Joseph fili David; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Missa O admirabile commercium (Agnus Dei); plainchant: Alleluia. Crastina die; Benedictus (7. modi); Hodie scietis; Francisco DE VIDALES (1632-1702): Los que fueren de buen gusto; Juan García DE ZÉSPEDES (c1619-1678): Convidando está la noche

Christine Buras, Hannah Ely, Fiona Fraser, Helena Thomson, soprano; Rebekah Jones, contralto; Francis Gush, alto; Paul Bentley-Angell, Chris Fitzgerald-Lombard, tenor; David Le Prevost, Ben McKee, Ben Rowarth, bass
Kate Conway, viola da gamba; Stephanie Muncey-Dyer, sackbut; Katie Cowling, dulcian; Aileen Henry, harp; Toby Carr, Sergio Bucheli, guitar; Katie De La Matter, organ; Tom Hollister, percussion

Colonialism was not just a matter of politics, but of culture as well. The Spanish colonies in the New World were strongly influenced by the music written in Spain during the Renaissance and the early part of the 17th century. Composers from the Iberian peninsula went to the New World, and took positions as maestri di cappella or organists. Gradually composers born there took their positions, and mostly composed music in their style. However, they often also integrated local styles into their own compositions or wrote music on texts in the languages of the indigenous peoples. The present disc offers a mixture of pieces of several genres in a programme of music for Christmastide as it could have been performed in Puebla de los Ángeles, today the fourth largest city of Mexico.

The central item is a mass setting by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, who was born in Málaga and first acted as maestro de capilla at Cádiz Cathedral. It is not exactly known when he left Spain for New Spain, as Mexico was called at the time, but he was there by the autumn of 1622. He first became assistant maestro de capilla at Puebla Cathedral, and when the maestro de capilla, Gaspar Fernandes, died in 1629, Padilla was appointed his successor. He held this post until his death. His oeuvre is considerable and includes five masses, four of them for eight voices in two choirs. One of these is the Missa fili David, which is based on his own motet of that title, which is also for double choir. It is notable that the Benedictus and Agnus Dei are missing, which - according to Patrick Allies in his liner-notes - was probably a local tradition, as only one of the double-choir masses includes these sections. The Benedictus is performed here in plainchant, whereas for the Agnus Dei, Allies turned to the Missa O admirabile commercium by Palestrina, a composer whose works are well represented in the archive of Puebla Cathedral.

Although the programme is not specifically intended as a kind of reconstruction of a mass, it focuses on music making in the Cathedral, and that included the performance of villancicos. This was a typical Spanish genre, originally with secular texts, which had entered the spiritual world and gradually became part of ecclesiastical celebrations. In Spain, the church authorities tried to ban them from services, but that had little effect. In the New World, it seems to have been accepted as part of the liturgy. "At Christmas, the tradition was to present villancicos as part of the Matins service, but this recording offers a suggestion as to how they might have sounded alongside a setting of the Mass." Padilla himself composed at least 45 villancicos, divided into nine cycles for Christmastide. These include some non-Spanish influences: Mexican, Afro-Hispanic and Portuguese. A la xácara xacarilla represents a particular kind of villancico, based on the xácara, a dance which has its roots in the underworld of southern Spanish towns in the time of the Moors. Another piece based on a xácara is Los que fueren de buen gusto by Francisco de Vidales. The fact that it is scored for three high voices and basso continuo, documents how this popular form had been sophisticated in the course of time. The guaracha, an Afro-Cuban dance form, is included in Convidando está la noche by Juan García de Zéspedes, who in Padilla's late years acted as his deputy.

It is in the genre of the villancico that we find pieces on texts in the languages of the indigenous peoples. An example is Tleycantimo choquiliya by Gaspar Fernandes, in which Spanish is blended with Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs.

Just one composer in the programme has no connections with the New World: Juan Cererols. Serafin, que con dulce harmonia is a so-called marizápalos, a Spanish dance-song with a fixed melody and chord progression. This piece is for eight voices and basso continuo.

The plainchant items fit into a programme of music to be performed in the church. They suggest that this is a mass reconstruction, but - as I have stated above - it is not. The fact that the programme ends with a setting of Deus adiutorium meum intende bears witness to that, as this is an invitatorium, to be sung at the start of a liturgical event.

It rounds off a very interesting collection of pieces which gives us a good insight into liturgical practices, which are partly very different from what we know about liturgical events in Europe, and even at the Iberian peninsula. The inclusion of villancicos is particularly interesting, as this is a large and rich repertoire which enjoys increasing interest but is by far not thoroughly explored. This kind of repertoire is also performed differently. Here we hear several instruments, including percussion, but other performers take a more restrained approach. The ways of performing may well have differed from one place to the other. On this disc the mass is also performed with the participation of instruments, and that includes once again percussion. This and the guitar, also part of the ensemble, were common at the time, and likely also used in church, but whether they were also used in masses and motets is anybody's guess.

Not long ago I reviewed two of this choir's discs elsewhere, and I was quite happy with them. Although this disc deserves to be welcomed, especially because of its concept and the selection of music, I have some reservations with regard to the performance. That especially concerns the villancicos. These are mostly performed with reduced forces, and in some of them the vibrato in several of the voices manifests itself, which I am not happy about and which is undesired in this kind of music. I also find the performances of these pieces too restrained. It is very difficult for performers with a different cultural background to grasp the spirit of the villancicos. I miss the verve and energy of Spanish performers. To my ears, the villancicos here are just too tame. Padilla's mass and motet come off best by far.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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