When this CD first plopped onto my doormat I
thought that it was a disc of baroque symphonies by mediocre and
obscure Latin American composers. Once unwrapped I realized how
wrong I had been, for this disc is of music from the early 16th
to the mid 18th centuries, and ‘symphonies’ here means
a sounding together of instruments of a wide variety with or without
The fact that the eight-part Mass by Padilla
is divided up across the disc has already been commented on elsewhere.
It takes only a little track programming to have the tracks play
in the correct order and without interruption. It’s worth doing
and it’s worth comparing the performance, if you can, with that
by The Harp Consort under Andrew Lawrence-King on a recent disc
‘Missa Mexicana’ (Harmonia Mundi 907293) where it is also spread
around the CD. Although recorded in a large French Abbey (Saint
Michel-en-Thierache) it is intimate and closely miked. The building
is not a noticeable feature. Also the Harp Consort is one-per-part
whereas Ex Cathedra is a fairly large choir of something approaching
thirty. This means that Skidmore is a little more expansive but
not less incisive. The continuo used by Skidmore is roughly similar
to that used by Lawrence-King that is harp, guitar, theorbo etc.,
but Skidmore using larger forces has the brass playing throughout.
Lawrence-King adds sackbut and cornet ensemble at certain climatic
points. This is double choir music at its finest. Particularly
arresting is the Credo with choir 1 singing through the text quickly
and choir 2 punctuating each line with an additional ‘Credo’ (I
believe) cadence. The Mass is a mixture of lively syncopated rhythms
and flowing text book polyphony.
Another piece shared by these two CDs, and which
ends each, is ‘Convidando esta la noche’. This is a Christmas
Carol marked by a rhythm of six quavers followed by three crotchets
as used by Bernstein in ‘America’. Skidmore comments in his notes
that this brief piece is a synthesis of "homophonic ‘European’
sections and the exuberant cross-rhythms of African dance".
The hymn-like opening stanza contrasts with the rhythmic excitement
of the next section. The Harp Consort does not alter the tempo
or style during the piece. Nevertheless both versions are great
fun and everyone gets quite carried away.
Another highlight of this new disc is the very
moving setting by Hernando Franco of the ‘Salve Regina’. Again
there is a comparative version worth mentioning; that by Westminster
Cathedral Choir directed in 1989 by James O’Donnell (Mexican Polyphony
Hyperion CDA 66330). This version is all male, the boys sounding
superb and unaccompanied throughout. Skidmore, who adds over one
minute onto its length, opts for a grander version. In this instrumental
doublings and solo sections constantly evolve the textures. I
would like to tell you how. The section ‘Vita dulcendo’ begins
after the opening plainchant with voices and brass. This is an
alternatum version with plainsong verses. For ‘Ad te clamamus’
we have women’s voices accompanied by the lower brass which also
started the verse instead of men. There is some eloquent cornet
playing here and all is quite ravishing. Beginning ‘Et Jesum,
benedictum’ we have four solo a capella voices. Finally for ‘O
dulcis, O pia’ we revert to voices and brass doubling. A wonderful
climax is achieved at the final A-men.
Another even greater work on this CD is Alonso
Lobo’s Lament on the death of Philip II, ‘Versa est in luctum’.
There are several versions of this expressive work in the catalogue,
but I have always regarded Westminster Choir’s version under David
Hill from 1985 (Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance’ Hyperion
CDA 66168) as being about the best but now I change my mind. Skidmore
is quite right to move the music along more than Hill. He makes
more dynamic contrasts and each line is shaped in a way I‘ve not
heard before. Quite wonderful.
If these three pieces are not enough then I will
quickly add that the disc contains three religious songs in the
Aztec language known as ‘Quechua’, one with a vicious and foot-tapping
bass drum beat. The disc contains a very tuneful and rococo Kyrie
and Gloria from a Mass by Domenico Zipoli with pleasing syncopations
and catchy rhythms. So the disc can quite legitimately be subtitled
‘From Araujo to Zipoli - an A to Z of Latin American Music’.
Recording excellent with the acoustic of All
Saint’s Tooting playing its part. The notes are fascinating; pity
there weren’t even more of them.