Missa ego flos campi by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and other Mexican baroque music
The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart with Matthew Marshall and Jamie Garrick (guitars)
Church of St Mary of the Angels
Saturday 15 September, 7.30pm
The inspiration for this concert of Mexican music, mainly liturgical, came from its coinciding with Mexico’s national day, celebrating independence from Spain in 1810 (though not from the economic colonisation by the country to their north).
For all the cruelty of the conquistadors towards the pre-Colomban peoples, Spain had nevertheless planted a richer and in some ways a more permanent linguistic, cultural and religious character on the country, in the shape of splendid religious architecture, painting and music; though of course that went with a conservative social and economic framework that the countries of Latin America are still suffering from today.
Recall that a major Spanish composer, Padilla, who lived in Mexico through the mid 17th century while the English colonies to the north remained relatively uncultivated, had found an environment that had already succeeded in replicating the culture and sophistication of the home country quite profoundly.
When Padilla was 26, in 1616, he became Maestro di capilla at the Cadiz Cathedral, and travelled to Mexico by 1622 where he became Maestro di capilla at the Cathedral in Puebla. Puebla, now a city of around a million, had by the 17th century become remarkably rich and had gained a pre-eminent position in Mexican cultural life, especially music. Padilla was the leading, and an enormously prolific, composer whose name, curiously, will not be found in English music reference books of earlier years. However, a glance at ‘Mexico’ and his own entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, will put him in context.
It was one of his many masses that formed the backbone of the concert: Missa ego flos campi (‘I am the flower of the field’, from The Song of Solomon). It was accompanied by Michael Stewart on the chamber organ and two guitars played by Matthew Marshall and Jamie Garrick. Apart from that, there seemed little to distinguish it from the polyphony of Morales or Victoria, and the choir performed with its accustomed elegance and clarity. The Gloria attracted special attention with its opening tenor solo, leading to passages that were perhaps a little more light-hearted than earlier masses; while the Sanctus introduced rhythms with a hint of syncopation.
I was particularly charmed by the translucent singing of the Agnes Dei which was greatly enriched by the simplicity of guitars and organ.
As is common in concerts of this kind, the mass was interspersed by smaller motets and guitar pieces, and there were some changes that were reportedly brought about by rehearsal problems.
Between Kyrie and Gloria, the Xácara (a Portuguese word meaning ‘ballad’; the Spanish is ‘jacara’), ‘Los que fueran de bien gusto’ was sung by three soloists from the ranks: sopranos Erin King and Jane McKinlay and alto Megan Hurnard: syncopated rhythms were accompanied with clapping.
After the Gloria Matthew Marshall played a Prelude, allegro and gigue by Francisco de Vidales, which had been programmed in the second half. (It replaced a xácara by Padilla). The prelude, slow and meditative, led to a charming triple-time allegro which revealed the hand of an accomplished composer and a spirited performance. In the Gigue quite tricky rhythms had me wondering whether a particular phrase was smudged or merely an unusually complex little turn.
Soprano Erin King sang again after the Sanctus: ‘Marizapalos a lo divino – Serafin que con dulce harmonia’ by a contemporary of Padilla, Joan Cererola. Her singing was warm and soft, and perhaps in my imagination, I was hearing the wonderful Montserrat Figueras’s voice.
Matthew Marshall contributed another solo, this time way out of the era: ‘Por ti mi corazón’ by the father of Mexican nationalism in music, Manuel Ponce. Its gentle meandering melody suggested Mompou or Turina, in a performance that spoke of modesty and refinement.
The choir then returned to the 17th century with Garcia de Zéspedes’s ‘Convidando esta la noche’ (which I suppose means something like ‘Convivial is the night’). Part way through Michael Stewart took to a drum set while a singer handled maracas as the spirit of the music grew more and more lively, with an energetic tenor taking command towards the end.
Though the concert was a bit shorter than might have been expected the goods were of the finest quality and the audience showed great delight at this move away from the heartland of the early baroque, no doubt to open many ears in surprise to the sophistication of New Spain in the 17th century.