Stile Antico’s Spanish Nativity (CD Review)

A Spanish Nativity

Stile Antico

Harmonia Mundi 902312

The “Golden Age” of Spanish polyphony (during the sixteenth century) yielded a number of pieces suitable for Christmastime by some of the finest composers of the Renaissance: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Franciso Guerrero, and Cristóbal de Morales. On the a cappella vocal group Stile Antico’s latest disc, A Spanish Nativity, these leading lights are set alongside Alonso Lobo, Mateo Flecha el Viejo, and Pedro Rimonte; all three’s music is worthy of revival.

The dozen singers of Stile Antico create an extraordinarily well-blended sound on Victoria’s great motet “O Magnum Mysterium,” Guerrero’s “Beata Dei genitrix Maria,” and the Lobo mass based upon it. The contrapuntal sections are clearly delineated and the chordal passages are resonant and beautifully tuned. Lobo adeptly parodied the textures of Guerrero’s motet while significantly embellishing the source material. It makes the case for Lobo’s music to be far better known. This appears at least somewhat likely; of late ensembles are making the case both for him and for Mateo Flecha – one is glad to see them having a moment.

Stile Antico is equally adept at the syncopated dance rhythms of Guerrero’s “A un niño llorando,” Rimonte’s “De la piel de sus ovejas,” and Flecha’s “El jubilate” and “Ríu ríu chíu.” The juxtaposition of motet and villancico (a ‘peasant song’) shows the range that Guerrero was able to employ in his work. Flecha was the premiere purveyor of “Ensaladas,” (yes, salads), quodlibets of secular songs that are nearly always about the nativity. Those programmed here are among his most famous Ensaladas.

The recording closes with a beautiful selection, Morale’s motet “Cum natus esset Jesus.” Built around a canon between the alto and soprano, its technical rigor is no impediment to beautifully flowing lines and deftly crafted cadences.

A Spanish Nativity is highly recommended, as is Stile Antico’s other 2019 release, In A Strange Land – Elizabethan Composers in Exile, which features music by recusant Catholic composers during the time of Elizabeth I. The ensemble has had quite a year and one waits expectantly for their next project in the studio – as well as their next concert tour of the United States.

-Christian Carey

Tallis Scholars: new CD, Concerts in Princeton and New York

Now in their forty-sixth year of singing, the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have long made an annual December concert at Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown Manhattan a stop on their winter tour. Part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series, these concerts have focused on Renaissance polyphony, but there have also been some noteworthy new works on the programs. They frequently program the music of Arvo Pärt. Last year’s concert featured the premiere of a piece for the Tallis Scholars written by Nico Muhly.

However, this year an imaginative program, titled “Reflections” is on offer that interweaves selections based on different liturgical sections, bringing together composers from England and on the Continent active throughout the Renaissance as well as twentieth century French composers Francis Poulenc and Olivier Messiaen.

The group is nearing the completion of its edition of Josquin’s Masses. Their latest recording of Missa Mater Patris and Missa Da Pacem (Gimell CD, 2019), presents pieces whose attribution has been the matter of some controversy. The former mass is based on music by Brumel, which would be the only such borrowing by Josquin, contains some uncharacteristic blocks of homophony at strategic places and fewer of the composer’s signature imitative duos. So, is it a misattribution? Without stating anything categorically, in his characteristically erudite liner notes Phillips suggests the Brumel connection might place the mass in 1512 or 1513, shortly after Brumel’s death as an homage to a composer friend; this would make it one of the last two mass settings we have by Josquin. The source material might help to account for the different approach.

Whether Josquin wrote it or someone else, Missa Mater Patris contains some much fine music that is superlatively sung on the Gimmell CD. The Hosanna sections of the Sanctus and Benedictus, borrowing cascades in thirds from the Brumel motet, is both fleet and exuberant. The Agnus Dei III is another section where the contributions of Brumel are expertly integrated.

Phillips relates that, from the nineteenth century to relatively recently, Missa Da Pacem was held up as an example of the Josquinian style. Recent discoveries have suggested another author, Noel Bauldeweyn (Beauty Farm recently released a fine disc of this lesser known composer’s masses). Phillips is not entirely willing to concede that Da Pacem isn’t Josquin’s, he instead mentions passages that seem to point to one and then the other author and leaves the listener a chance to judge – and savor – for themselves.

CONCERT DETAILS

PROGRAM

Salve Regina

Chant: Salve Regina

Padilla: Salve Regina

Poulenc: Salve Regina

Cornysh: Salve Regina

Ave Maria

Chant: Ave Maria

Cornysh: Ave Maria

Poulenc: Ave Maria a10 (arr. Jeremy White)

Miserere

Allegri: Miserere

Croce: Miserere Mei

O sacrum convivium

Tallis: O sacrum convivium

Messiaen: O sacrum convivium

Magnificat

Byrd: Magnificat from Short Service

Victoria: Magnificat Primi Toni 

Princeton, New Jersey, USA

McCarter Theatre

December 13, 2019, 8 PM

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York, USA

December 14, 2019, 8 PM

Release Day! Composers at Westminster Recording

On Friday, October 25th, Westminster Choir College’s recording label, distributed by Naxos, will release “Composers at Westminster,” a digital recording of works by the composition faculty. It includes music by Stefan Young, Joel Phillips, Jay Kawarsky, Ronald Hemmel, and Christian Carey.

Three of the college’s choirs, conducted by Joe Miller, James Jordan, and Amanda Quist, as well as Victoria Browers, a member of the voice faculty, accompanied by pianist J.J. Penna, are among the performers on the recording.

You may listen to a stream or download the music via this link.

Upcoming Performance: Westminster Kantorei

Westminster Kantorei in Boston

On April 28th, 2018, two of my Magnificat Antiphons will be performed by Westminster Kantorei, Amanda Quist, conductor. Kantorei will be recording them the following week for release on Westminster Choir College’s imprint (distributed by Naxos).

I have been at Westminster since 2004. I am thrilled that, for the first time, my work will be featured by one of the choirs.

You can hear Lumina, the choir’s superb debut recording (long-listed for last year’s Grammys), here.

Concert Details: Bristol Chapel, Westminster Choir College (101 Walnut Lane, Princeton, NJ 08540), 8 PM. $20/$15 students/seniors.

Bach Christmas Oratorio – the Dunedin Consort

J.S. Bach

Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

Mary Bevan and Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson and Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-sopranos; Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs, tenors; Matthew Brook and Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritones. Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt.

Linn CKD 499 (2xCD)

First, I’ll admit that at Christmas Messiah has most often been my jam; I have several recordings, have performed it as soloist, accompanist, and conductor, and find it to be one of the most uplifting pieces out there. This year the Dunedin Consort, led by John Butt, has changed my tune. I’ve listened over and over again to their new recording of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. 

The oratorio is actually a collection of six cantatas that were performed during a particularly festive Christmas in 1735. They cover Sundays from the beginning of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Epiphany. Butt has chosen to perform them with eight soloists, four each alternating between the successive cantatas, and four ripieno singers. The use of a relatively small complement of vocalists lines up with current Bach scholarship. Butt primarily employs soloists with two to a part in passages like the chorales. This emphasizes the contrapuntal character of the vocal parts, treating the cantatas as chamber music rather than the large choral works that they are sometimes presented as in less period-informed settings. (Butt’s notes on the history of the Christmas Oratorio and his particular performance choices for the recording make for fascinating and enlightening reading).

Chamber music yes, but the instrumentation is both varied and vivid. Part One features virtuoso trumpet parts and timpani, the second extensive writing for woodwinds, the fourth buoyant horn duos and an “echo aria” with an extra soprano, and the last cantata returns to the use of brass and timpani in its climactic passages (it also features an oboe solo during the standout soprano aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” beautifully sung and played by Mary Bevan and Alex Belamy, respectively).

Butt elicits a performance from the soloists and Dunedin Consort that is fleet-footed yet flexible, cleanly rendered yet never overly cool. Indeed, some of the recitatives and solos are quite emotively delivered. The conductor has also wisely chosen soloists who complement both the textual and textural aspects of each of the cantatas. For instance, Nicholas Mulroy is the more forceful of the two tenors. He balances well with the defiant music and ebullient orchestration of Part Six, while the more sweet-voiced Thomas Hobbs is sure-footed in the fluid recitatives and arias of Part Four. While each singer brings a different timbre and demeanor to the table, they blend seamlessly in the ensemble passages and to a person share exquisite tone and abundant musicality.

This is a recording that made me completely rethink my impressions of the Christmas Oratorio. Now, instead of writing it off as the lightweight cousin of the Bach Passions, I am ready to consider alongside the composer’s best known choral music, going toe to toe with them both in terms of ambition and quality. Recommended holiday or anytime listening.

 

“O Emmanuel,” performed by the Wesley Singers (Soundcloud)

Cheekwood, Nashville, TN.
Cheekwood, Nashville, TN.

Last year, the Wesley Singers, conducted by Dr. Gareth Bond, recorded my set of Magnificat Antiphons for SSATB chorus.  To interested choir directors out there, I would say,”Advent is coming!”

Aquarius Sings Arvo Pärt

500x500

Magnificent Magnificat

Arvo Pärt

Aquarius chamber choir, conducted by Marc Michael De Smet

Jade Music

 

This collection of choral music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt celebrates his eightieth birthday. It is programmed to emphasize his interpretations of Marian texts such as the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and O Antiphons, all of which are central to his choral output. It also includes an excerpt from the totemic Kanon Pokajanen, his largest choral work, as well as shorter excerpts such as The Deer’s Cry and I am the True Vine. (The latter is particularly beautifully performed.)

Aquarius, a group of twenty-four voices, seems “right-sized” for these works, with enough voices to provide the requisite heft and majesty where necessary while still being able to create diaphanous pianissimo passages elsewhere. Conductor Marc Michael De Smet does an exquisite job of shaping phrases, balancing chords, and, a very important consideration in the performance of Pärt, pacing the proceedings. I will be on the lookout for their complete recording of Kanon Pokajanen.