Two simultaneous reissues on Hyperion’s budget label neatly
bracket the history of polyphonic music. One showcases the music
(CDH55328, Red Byrd/Cappella Amsterdam - see review
In the latter part of
the twelfth century the choir of Notre Dame in Paris began to
sing liturgical texts in two different parts - the beginning
of the process which achieved its final flowering in the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
The composers on the Mexican Polyphony reissue took the music
of the Old World with them to the New, where it continued to
flourish at a time when the likes of Monteverdi were introducing
what we now call the baroque style in Europe. Far from sounding
derivative or anachronistic, however, what we hear on this CD
is fresh and lively and still attractive to modern listeners.
Most will find its appeal more immediate than the music of Léonin,
much as I also recommend that reissue.
When this CD first appeared, in 1990, there was very little competition;
one reviewer aptly described the programme as exploring a little-known
area of the polyphonic repertory. It wears its twenty years lightly.
Even now its reappearance is very welcome, especially on Hyperion’s
budget-price label. Last year, reviewing The Sixteen’s
recording of a programme entirely consisting of the music of
the best-known of the composers here, Juan de Padilla, I mentioned
this Westminster Cathedral recording, then available only to
special order, and hoped that it would soon be released on the
Helios label. Mirabile dictu
, wishes do sometimes come
Padilla’s music is better known now than in 1990, thanks
largely to that Sixteen/Coro recording of his music, Streams
(COR16059), the download of which I reviewed last
year - see review
The performances there are about as flawless as we are likely
to hear, but the Westminster Cathedral choristers run them very
close - and they have the advantage of probably coming rather
closer to producing the sound which Padilla would have heard
in Puebla Cathedral.
On the Coro CD, The Sixteen sing Deus in adiutorium
, the Maundy Thursday Lamentations and Salve
at a slightly faster pace than the Westminster choristers.
That is true to form for The Sixteen, who tend to take music
of this period a little faster than others; I have sometimes
characterised the difference between them and their chief rivals
in this repertoire, The Tallis Scholars, by saying that with
The Sixteen the pace is more consistently maintained whereas
with The Scholars one gets to appreciate a little more of the
scenery en route. The Westminster singers fall into the latter
category; when the singing is as professional as it is from all
three of these groups, either approach is valid. I’m not
sitting on the fence - an uncomfortable place to be - I really
do appreciate the virtues of all three and can listen to any
of them without discomfort.
Which brings me to reiterate a question which I raised last year;
how much does what we hear from either The Sixteen or Westminster
Cathedral approximate to the sound which Padilla would have heard?
Would one would really want to hear the sound of a Mexican choir,
circa 1630. I’m sure that the sound which Padilla heard
in Mexico - or even in his native Spain - was far more amateurish
than that produced by either The Sixteen or the Westminster choristers.
I keep in my collection a recording of Victoria’s Missa
and Cererols’ Missa de Gloria a 8
as a reminder of how off-key the cathedral choirs of earlier
days may well have sounded. (Escoliana & Capella de Música
Montserrat/Ars Musicæ de Barcelona/Ireneu Segarra on a
long-deleted EMI/DHM CD.) I would also have directed you to a
Mexican recording of Padilla’s music for Christmas Matins
which I recommended last year, but that seems no longer to be
available even as a download.
As sung by The Sixteen and at Westminster, this music is sheer
bliss. There is, however, yet another way with the music of Central
and South America, as offered by Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore.
They have made three recordings of baroque music from Latin America
for Hyperion. On CDA67524, as part of a programme entitled Moon,
Sun and All Things
, they follow the evocative Hanacpachap
, from the Lima Ritual of 1631, with Padilla’s Deus
in adiutorium meum
, taken at the fastest pace of all the
recordings under consideration here: 2:02 against The Sixteen’s
2:09 and Westminster’s 2:32.
Surely there is a ‘correct’ tempo for this music?
Well, not really -all three recordings have their plus points.
Ex Cathedra’s programme offers a festal setting of Vespers
for the feast of St Ignatius Loyola, so their brisk tempo is ‘correct’ in
context. The Sixteen, as I have said, always give due consideration
to keeping the music moving, so they, too, are ‘correct’ in
context. The Westminster choristers are performing in a large
and resonant building, one in which they regularly sing and whose
characteristics they know, so their slightly slower pace is also ‘correct’.
If I have a preference for the Ex Cathedra CD because it places
all the music in a liturgical context, that certainly doesn’t
rule out the other two excellent sets of performances.
I’ll give the details of those Ex Cathedra recordings here
before moving on, because they are complementary to the Westminster
recording and because any one of them - or, preferably, all three
- would afford prospects of absolute delight:
• New World Symphonies
- CDA67380 - see review
• Moon, Sun and All Things
- CDA67524 (SACD on SACDA67524)
- see review
• Fire Burning in Snow
- CDA67600 (SACD67600) - see review
I’ve attempted the difficult task of choosing
thirty of my favourite
to celebrate the founding
of their own download site. I had to
cheat in the case of those Ex Cathedra recordings and include
all three in the one choice.
There’s one more recording of Padilla’s music that
I’d like to throw into the ring here, where his exuberant
music forms the centrepiece of a concert superbly performed by
the Harp Consort under Andrew Lawrence-King. (HMU90 7293, but,
if you look around, you may still find this on bargain-price
HMX290 7293, bundled with the 2006 Harmonia Mundi catalogue -
With the wonderful Missa Ego flos campi
at its heart,
that HM recording is probably the place to begin listening to
the music of Padilla, but I guarantee that, if you purchase it,
you will soon be adding all three Ex Cathedra recordings, the
current Helios reissue and the Coro CD to your wish list. Oh,
and don’t forget the Léonin CD, to see how polyphony
began. As the current CD and the Léonin are offered at
Hyperion’s very generous Helios budget price (around £6),
you could probably afford to add yet another recording on that
label: Masterpieces of Portuguese Polyphony
- see review
to hear the Old World equivalents of this music.
Above all, however, go for this new reissue, one in a long line
of excellent recordings which Westminster Cathedral, under various
musical directors, have made for Hyperion. With first-class singing,
very good recording and the usual high level of documentation,
this would be high on my list of inexpensive Christmas presents
for anyone with even half a liking of polyphonic music.