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Celebrating Sacred Rhythms
Ariel RAMIREZ (b.1921)
Navidad Nuestra (1964) [18.58]
Folk Drama of the Nativity, based on the Rhythms and Traditions of Hispanic America.
Misa Criolla (arr. Jesus Gabriel Segade) (1964) [22.15]
Folk Mass based on the Rhythms and Traditions of Hispanic America TRADITIONAL
Missa Luba (arr. Father Guido Haazen) (1958) [15.58]
Mass in Congolese Style for Mixed Chorus with Soloists and Percussion (based on an improvisation by the Congolese chorus Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin
Manuel Melendez (tenor) (Navidad; Criolla)
José Sacin (tenor)  (Navidad; Criolla)
Pablo Talamante (tenor) (Navidad; Criolla) AC
Christal Rheams (alto) (Luba)
The Choral Arts Society of Washington
Instrumental and Percussion Ensembles/Joseph Holt
rec. St. Luke’s Catholic Church, McLean, Virginia, USA, July 2004.
NAXOS 8.557542 [56.47]

For this release entitled Celebrating Sacred Rhythms, Naxos have chosen American conductor Joseph Holt who made his Choral Arts debut conducting the Misa Criolla.
 
The Argentine composer and pianist Ariel Ramírez is widely acclaimed throughout South America for his unique synthesis of popular and liturgical styles. He is represented here by his settings of the Misa Criolla and the Navidad Nuestra. The Misa Criolla is based on South American folk music and is a setting of the traditional Mass texts, in Spanish, to the accompaniment of a variety of Andean instruments. Navidad Nuestra, set in the north of Argentina, is a depiction of the Mystery of the Incarnation. Described by its creator, the missionary Father Guido Haazen, as a “collective improvisation” the Missa Luba adapts traditional Congolese melodies and rhythms to the Latin texts of the Mass. The work includes prominent parts for African percussion instruments.
 
Navidad Nuestra (Our Nativity)
Like the Misa Criolla, Ariel Ramírez composed Navidad Nuestra (Our Nativity) in 1964. For the six episodes of this Creole folk-tableau with Spanish texts by Félix Luna (b.1925), the composer availed himself of dances and songs drawn from the Argentine musical traditions. Ramírez evokes a wide range of expressions from traditional Argentine music. Luna’s six poems narrate the universally known episodes of the Christmas story from the annunciation, through the birth, the flight to Egypt and Herod’s sacrifice of the children. Far from the original Bethlehem, Luna locates the story in the north of his native Argentina.
 
Ramírez’s original instrumentation includes harpsichord or piano, guitar, bongos, tenor and baritone solos, chorus, jingle bells or cascabeles, high drums with sticks and low drums with hands. The arrangement for this recording incorporates two violins in the first two movements, three guitars, percussion and bass throughout as well as three tenors in the first, fourth and sixth movements. Peruvian tenor, José Sacin performs the solo in the third movement, and the fourth movement features Carmen de Vicente, one of the world’s only concert castanet performers.
 
The rhythmic opening movement The Annunciation is given a high spirited performance and the second movement The Pilgrimage is poignantly delivered with the male and female choir being especially effective. In The Nativity tenor José Sacin is wonderfully natural and warm. The velvety tenor voice heard over the female choir and low drum is marvellously done. In The Shepherds movement, the choir and the three tenors, to the accompaniment of the castanets and guitar is foot-tappingly rousing. Dominated by guitars and percussion the fifth movement The Three Kings has excellent responses from the choir members. The splendid final movement The Flight acquires a compelling, almost meditative, splendour.
 
Missa Luba
In 1954 the Missionary Father Guido Haazen established in the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the chorus Les troubadours du Roi Baudouin. Four years later, based on the performances of these African singers, Haazen adapted and arranged the Missa Luba from their improvisations. The Missa Luba adapts traditional Congolese melodies and rhythms to the five movements of the ordinary Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) with the text in Latin.
 
The Missa Luba is scored for tenor soloist, mixed chorus, and three percussionists playing the African native drums, namely the djembe, congas and ngoma drum. The guiro replaces the gourd or African sakasaka in this recording. As the sole instrumental force in Missa Luba, the percussion carries forward the incisive rhythmic ostinatos that sustain the melodic discourse, often in responsorial form between the male and female voices. Reflecting African popular expression, the musical outcome invites corporeal movement during worship. Equally idiosyncratic is the improvisational character of the work, despite being notated, which challenges performers in the Western tradition. As noted in the preface to the published score, “if desired this written version of the Mass may be used as a suitable springboard for those who will venture upon their own new creation of this original African Mass.”
 
For this Naxos recording, contralto Christal Rheams replaces the tenor solo with her unique improvisations. The choral arrangement incorporates different combinations of voices. The final improvisations in the Agnus Dei are achieved with the voices creating an inspirational chant conceived at the moment. The score indicates improvisational passages for percussion in the Credo which are brilliantly performed by the percussion ensemble.
 
In the opening movement Kyrie the choir with the tenors and the percussion take centre-stage. Despite the best efforts of the American-born contralto Christal Rheams this is to my ears pretty uninspiring music. Dominated by the contralto and the percussion I again found the Gloria undistinguished. As in the opening two movements the Credo is dominated by the contralto and the percussion. Written for choir and percussion parts, the languid Sanctus only begins to move out of its slumber at point 01.26 (track 6). In the concluding movement Agnus Dei the forces perform in an improvisatory manner providing a fresh and spontaneous interpretation. Overall I found the score to the Missa Luba rather disappointing and unmemorable; even after several playings. I was left wondering whether the score is better experienced as participant rather than listener.
 
Misa Criolla
The accomplishment of Ariel Ramírez with the Misa Criolla is beyond comparison. Over forty years after its creation in 1964, this Mass is considered one of the utmost expressions of popular music in Argentina. It has transcended international borders to gain worldwide acclaim. Even Ramírez, a composer with a career of long-standing, could not have foreseen that it would become such a famous work amongst his prolific output comprising compositions for chorus, voice and piano.
 
Musically speaking, the Misa falls into a category somewhere between strict academic and urban popular but. Ramírez does not intend to preserve folklore but to achieve an artistic recreation of folk-derived traits within a personal compositional style. The Misa Criolla consists of musical settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. With liturgical texts in Spanish it is one of the first Catholic Masses to be composed in a language other than Latin. Each part of the Mass is based on either traditional Argentine dances or songs. The vidala-baguala for the Kyrie, refers to the lyrical vocal form of Bolivia and northern Argentina.
 
The Mass is written for tenor, mixed chorus, percussion, Andean instruments, double bass and harpsichord or piano. It should be noted that Ramírez is considered today the first within the ‘nativist’ tradition to introduce the piano in the performance of traditional music in Argentina. In this Naxos recording, however, conductor Joseph Holt utilises the charango, a small guitar made of an armadillo shell, with the guitar replacing the keyboard part. The Andean notched flute, quena and the panpipes, siku, which are also featured in this recording, follow the Argentine criollo tradition where they usually accompany the charango, the guitar and the bombo.
 
The Misa Criolla comes across as an appealing and inspiring work right from the first bars of the opening movement Kyrie. The atmosphere provided by the excellent performers is electric and at times magical. The three tenor parts lack the individual character of the acclaimed performance by the eminent and charismatic tenor José Carreras, on his 1987 Philips account, but the collective effect is thrilling. The first section of the lively carnival mood of the Gloria is dominated by the guitars before the tenors and choir gain prominence. Alongside the heavy dance elements of the Credo distinctive use is made of panpipes. The carnival mood of the Sanctus features guitars. The superbly performed closing movement Agnus Dei is notable for its dream-like and softly coloured textures.
 
Joseph Holt directs the forces of the Instrumental and Percussion Ensembles and The Choral Arts Society of Washington with commitment and enthusiasm. There’s no hint of the routine and the performance draws a wide range of emotional responses from the listener. The solo singers supply excellent contributions. The contralto of Christal Rheams has a highly distinctive timbre and the voice of tenor José Sacin is especially characterful; the pick of the three tenors.
The sound quality provided by the Naxos engineers is of a good standard. However on this release texts and translations are not provided. Texts can be accessed and downloaded online at www.naxos.com/libretti/navidadnuestra.htm but this seems a right fag to have to do. I certainly don’t want several sheets of A4 paper knocking about my house and where do I store them. Providing a release without texts in the booklet notes is penny-pinching, poor presentation and not a customer friendly practice for a company of Naxos’s stature.
 
I just loved the performances of Ramírez’s Misa Criolla and the Navidad Nuestra. A fascinating release that provided an abundance of pleasure.
 
Michael Cookson
 

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