Masterpieces of Mexican Polyphony
Hernando FRANCO (1532-1585) Salve regina [11:39]
Juan Gutiérrez de PADILLA (c.1590-1664) Deus in adiutorium [2:32]
Mirabilia testimonia [10:06]
Lamentation for Maundy Thursday [13:54]
Francisco López CAPILLAS (c.1605-1674) Alleluia. Dic nobis, Maria [4:43]
Magnificat quarti toni [9:50]
Juan Gutiérrez de PADILLA Salve regina [8:19]
Antonio de SALAZAR (c.1650-171) O sacrum convivium [3:18]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral; Andrew Watts, dulcian; Andrew Lawrence-King, harp; Iain Simcock (organ)/James O’Donnell
rec. Westminster Cathedral, London, 20-22 June 1989. DDD
Texts and translations included.
Reissued from CDA66330

Two simultaneous reissues on Hyperion’s budget label neatly bracket the history of polyphonic music. By the time this goes live, my review of the music of Léonin should have appeared (CDH55328, Red Byrd/Cappella Amsterdam). 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 true.

Padilla’s music is better known now than in 1990, thanks largely to that Sixteen/Coro recording of his music, Streams of Tears (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, Mirabilia testimonia, the Maundy Thursday Lamentations and Salve regina 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 Pro Defunctis and Cererols’ Missa de Gloria a 8 solely 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 cussicuinin, 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’m currently attempting the difficult task of choosing thirty of my favourite Hyperion recordings for a Musicweb article when their own download site goes active. I’ll have 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 - see review.) 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 (CDH55138 - 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.

Brian Wilson