Padilla, Araujo, Salazar, Zipoli and Fernandes

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COMPOSERS: Araujo,Padilla,Salazar,Zipoli and Fernandes
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Moon, Sun and All Things
WORKS: Baroque Music from Latin America, Vol. 2: works by Padilla, Araujo, Salazar, Zipoli, Fernandes
PERFORMER: Ex Cathedra Choir & Baroque Ensemble/Jeffrey Skidmore
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67524
This is a heady mix of gloriously rich polyphony and manic, earthy villancicos (popular songs consisting of stanzas framed by a refrain, in Latin America often allied to richly syncopated dances). Skidmore has mined a rich vein of hitherto undiscovered music in libraries and churches of South America, and devised a dramatic Vespers service.

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Deep reverberant drum-strokes, impressive enough in normal stereo but all-enveloping in the SACD option, signal a ritual Procession, first of instruments including gritty shawm sufficiently coarse to send shivers down the spine yet creating deliciously pure tuning in final cadences, then solo and choral voices singing an Aztec text. This also opened Skidmore’s first excursion to Spanish America in 2003 (Hyperion CDA 67380) and, newly scored and expanded, its noble, haunting melody has again infected my memory for days.

The range of styles is striking. Among the Psalm settings, Juan de Araujo’s Dixit Dominus looks back to the spacious grandeur of Gabrieli’s Venice, with soloists (all drawn from the choir) and two choruses in magnificent spatial dialogue with luxuriant instrumental doubling of strings, woodwind and brass. Domenico Zipoli recalls the late-Baroque Venice of Vivaldi; in Beatus Vir, Skidmore has expanded the notated instrumental forces to reflect the generous instrumental provision which his researches have revealed in Latin American churches of the time – several organs, harps, trumpets and large string orchestras – to create vivid descriptions: fearsome ‘gnashing with teeth’, and ‘[man’s] heart…established’ by resisting the impact of ferocious cross-rhythms. The centre-piece is by the Creole composer Francisco López Capillas, a Magnificat energised by the brevity of phrases thrown from one choir to another. Skidmore adopts an unusually slow, reflective pace for plainchant antiphons, an effective foil to the descriptive and animated Magnificat and Psalm texts which they frame.

A 17th-century treatise (translated by A Lawrence-King) complained of ‘people so lacking in piety that they attend church but once a year… But let it be known that there will be villancicos, and [they would rise] in the middle of the night in the freezing cold, just to hear them’. It’s easy to see why. One compares a bull-fight to the birth and passion of Christ in vivid, if theologically suspect, allegory. The refrain is built on utterly predictable harmony driven by strummed guitar, alternating with gloriously expressive continuo-accompanied verses. The instrumental contribution throughout includes a kaleidoscope of strings, shawm, bagpipes, trumpet, tromba marina and more, with cornets, sackbuts and a host of continuo. More energetic still is a villancico celebrating the nativity, with constantly-shifting time-signatures thrown further by off-beat accents, and ending in a frenzy of whoops and shrieks – Ex Cathedra more exhilaratingly uninhibited than I’ve heard them before.

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After such abandoned exuberance, Vespers ends with an endearingly unaffected recessional hymn, a single verse first in the language of the Chiquitos Indians then in Spanish. Instruments and voices are reduced, one by one, until nothing remains but hummed voices lingering in the air – and the memory of a most impressive disc. George Pratt