Saturday 2 March 2013

CD review - Al Combate

You've probably heard not none of the composers on this new disc from the Chicago Arts Orchestra. Under their artistic director Javier Jose Mendoza they have recorded a selection of works written in the galant style by composers in Latin America. The composers on the disc, Igancio Jerusalem and Santiago Billoni, wrote music for the society surrounding the Spanish Vice-Regal court in New Spain (now Mexico) centred on Mexico City. Though it wasn't the court which was the main patron, but the church with music being created for the church's ritual needs. But works like Ignacio Jerusalem's ode Al Combate were the fruit of a collaboration between church and Mexico University.

Ignacio Jerusalem (1707 - 1769) was born in Puglia in Italy and emigrated to Mexico City via Naples and Cadiz. Once in Mexico City he brought the cathedral's music up to date, writing music for ensembles including string instruments in the galant style. This was style which was current in Naples between 1720 and 1780. It was a style which sought clear textures and lyrical melodies. It was taught by Italian conservatories and taken up by many of the major European composers of the day. By 1750 Jerusalem had become the choirmaster of Mexico City cathedral, though by all accounts he was a colourful character with marital and legal troubles putting him in jail more than once.

Santiago Billoni (c1700 - c1763) was of Roman origin but his name is Hispanicised. He spent most of his working life in Guadalajara, Valladoid-Morella and Durango. At Durango he was choirmaster between 1749 and 1755. He and Jerusalem were the only two Italians to become choirmasters in New Spain. Billoni's music is notable for its harmonic experimentation and virtuosic violin writing.

The disc opens with Jerusalem's Symphony in G major, a short three movement work with a typical fast-slow-fast structure. It is virtually indistinguishable to an overture and in fact Jerusalem worked in the theatre, so the work's origins might be dramatic.

This is followed by four sacred vocal works. First an aria by Billoni, Mariposa Inadvertida, a charming work for the Easter season; it is a sacred aria rather than a motet, but the usage in the church was probably the same. The text refers to the unnoticed butterfly of the title but also finishes with a reference to Christ's passion.  Jerusalem's duet Gorjeos Trinando is for the feast of St Peter with a text referring to the cock crowing, allowing the composer to introduce bird-song imitation in the voices. Billoni's Celete Aurora Hermosa, an aria for the feast of the Immaculate Conception,  is a short da capo aria with a solo violin part, played by Billoni himself. Finally Cristal Bello, a Christmas aria with obbligato flute, by Jerusalem. This is a substantial work, a slow aria which is effectively a duet for soprano and flute.

Finally the substantial ode, Al Comabate by Jerusalem which was written in honour of King Charles III of Spain celebrating his coronation in 1760. This starts with a three movement overture and there is then a sequence of recitative, chorus and arias scored for strings, trumpets, horns and timpani. The text is a complex poem written in a very old-fashioned literary style using classical mythology; It is one of only a few substantial secular works to survive from 18th century New Spain. The work celebrates the allegiance of the University of Mexico to the newly crowned King Charles III of Spain.

The music on this disc is fascinating, personable and charming. You won't find any hidden masterpieces, but they are all part of a tradition which deserves a listen and we must thank Mendoza and the Chicago Arts Orchestra for reviving them.

Performances are neatly stylish with some good solo work. But the textures of much of the music involve repeated notes in the lower parts and I felt that the lower strings did chug somewhat. Generally I wanted a lighter feel to the music, with far more air between the notes. There is a slightly old-fashioned feel to the ensemble's sound, that said the playing is entirely acceptable.

One of the problems might be Mendoza's speeds, which seem to be on the steady side and do plod. In fact, in the more elaborate arias such as Cristal bello I felt that the singers were negotiating the music with quite a degree of care. These are virtuoso works and we don't quite get bravura virtuoso performances, you are too aware of the carefulness of the singers. Elda Peralta has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice and she blends nicely with soprano Eleanor Ranney-Mendoza in their duet. Though I found the soprano's tone in her solo aria a little uncertain.  Vincent Wallace is brilliant as the bass soloist in Al Combate, with counter-tenor Alexander Edgemon contributing a good technique in his aria. Not all the singers cope with the Spanish texts in an idiomatic manner.

If you put the disc into your computer you can access extensive programme notes, texts and translations, along with the score of the Symphony in G major and links to the original manuscript of Al Combate on the web, along with a video of an interview of Mendoza. The cover of the disc is a portrait of Charles III by Mengs, showing him to be a remarkably unprepossessing bloke with an amazing nose.

Perhaps the performances on this disc are not up to the best available of music of this period on disc, but the works unearthed deserve hearing. The programme has been put together with a great deal of thought and imagination.

Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769) - Symphony in G major (c1760) [9.22]
Santiago Billoni (c1700 - c1763) - Mariposa Inadvertida (c1750) [6.21]
Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769) - Gorjeos Trinando (c1760) [8.26]
Santiago Billoni (c1700 - c1763) - Celete Aurora Hermosa (c1750) [4.12]
Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769) - Cristal Bello (c1760) [13.16]
Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769) - Al Combate (1760) [25.34]
Eleanor Ranney-Mendoza (soprano)
Elda Peralta (mezzo-soprano)
Alexander Edgemon (counter-tenor)
Sandro Naglia (tenor)
Vincent Wallace (bass)
Chicago Arts Chorale
Chicago Arts Orchestra
Javier Jose Mendoza (conductor)

Recorded February 20-23, 2012 at Nichols Concert Hall, Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, USA

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