Wednesday 5 January 2022

Colour and movement: Patrick Allies and Siglo de Oro transport us to 17th century New Spain

Choir of Puebla Cathedral (Photo by Gusvel / Wikipedia)
Choir of Puebla Cathedral (Photo by Gusvel / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Christmas in Puebla
; Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Bursting with life, the music from 17th century Puebla in Mexico shows how the sacred and secular intertwine in this engagingly delightful programme

The New Year's Eve gala concert at Wigmore Hall on 31 December 2021 formed a delightful conclusion to this year's concert going. Christmas in Puebla featured Siglo de Oro, artistic director Patrick Allies in music associated with Puebla Cathedral in Mexico, a pilgrimage church in what was then New Spain. The programme centred on Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, his Missa Joseph fili David alongside lighter, more secular-influence works by Padilla and his contemporaries.

Allies directed an ensemble that consisted of nine singers and a varied instrumental ensemble of two guitars, baroque harp, bass viol, sackbut, dulcian, organ and percussion. Puebla was an important, and well endowed cathedral and by 1622 Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (c1590-1664) had migrated from his native Spain to Mexico and was organist and choirmaster at the cathedral. There he had a choir of 28 (14 boy trebles and 14 men) who also doubled as instrumentalists. We know that the singers played (and taught) harp, guitar, sackbut, dulcian and bass viol. 

We tend to think of 17th century Spanish polyphony as being purely vocal music, but the use of instrumental ensembles in church was relatively common and congregations would have been used to a mix of voice and instrument. In the programme, Siglo de Oro presented a mixture of unaccompanied and accompanied works, varying the instrumental line-up, but the basic sound of voices and instruments with harp and guitars strumming harmony rather than soberly doubling vocal lines, provided a delightful new aspect of the sound world.

We began with plainchant, Hodie scietis and then Padilla's double-choir motet Joseph fili David which showcased the bright young voices of the choir. Padilla's music was recognisably Spanish polyphony, yet he seemed to let the voices loose at moments with some delightful details. For the mass, which is based on the motet, Padilla uses eight voices again but this time with two unequal choirs (one has two sopranos and no bass), and we had instruments added to the mix. In the Kyrie and Gloria, the warm and passionate sound from the voices was transformed by the colours and timbres provided by the instruments. 

The music from 17th century Puebla shows the fascinating way that culture from Spain mixed with the indigenous, and we have to remember that the Spanish church had a long tradition of music that hovers between sacred and secular, just think of the 13th century cantigas de Santa Maria, songs in popular style that detail Marian miracles and which were probably sung by (or for) pilgrims.

Francisco de Vidales (c1630 - 1702) was a Mexican-born composer yet his Los que fueren de buen gusto uses the form of a jacara, a popular dance/song from Moorish Spain and the text is Spanish. Yet whilst the form is popular the text is clearly sacred. There female vocalists were accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, creating and engaging sense of the mix of sacred and secular. Portuguese-born Gaspar Fernandes (1570-1629) was Padilla's predecessor at Puebla yet his lively and engaging Xicochi is a polyglot piece mixing an Aztec lullaby with a refrain of 'Alleluia'. Francisco Lopez Capillas (1614-1674) was a student of Padilla's who, briefly, became his successor before going on to the cathedral at what is now Mexico City. His Cui luna sol et omnia is sober and traditional, seemingly channelling Netherlandish composers.

Returning to Padilla's mass, the Credo moved from a sense of the intimate to a glorious climax, and the use of instruments only emphasised the dance element in this music, you felt that Padilla was at times channelling the sacred/secular dance song. The final section created a vigorous sense of dialogue leading to a lively ending. Padilla's motet, Deus in adiutorium meum intende had a similar feel in that despite the grandness of the opening music, dance never seemed to be far away.

With Padilla's A la xacara xacarilla we were definitely in secular territory. This is a dance song that simply happens to have a sacred subject for its text. The result was lively and engaging, with a series of solo moments mixed in with the ensemble. Interestingly Padilla's pupil, Capillas, seems to have written no music in secular style, his surviving works are sober and proper, whereas Padilla seems to have delighted in both taking the sacred into the secular and the secular into the sacred. The image of the local populace enjoying the rhythms of his sacred music constantly comes to mind.

Mass settings in Puebla traditionally ended with the Sanctus and Padilla's was surprisingly sober, albeit with rich textures. The group followed this with a piece from Spain that seems to have travelled to Mexico. Joan Cererols (1618-1680) was a Spanish monk and his Marizapalos a lo divino was an example of Spain's use of the sacred dance song. Engaging with a melodic lilt to it, the piece felt gentler than some of the Mexican music and rather more sedate yet still delightful.

Another piece by Fernandes followed, Tieycantimo, a lively song with a real swing to it that set another polyglot text featuring the indigenous language. Where these sung at services, I wonder, or were there extra-musical events that reached out to the local populace to engage them?

The part-books from Puebla also included music by Palestrina, and we heard the Agnus Dei from is Missa O admirabile commercium. Understandably, this was performed with great poise in serious style with no instruments, but I did rather long to hear a Mexicanisation of it! Padilla's Christus natus est was a striking and remarkably sober piece, showing he could vary the style.

We ended with a piece by local composer, Juan Garcia de Zespedes (1619-1678) who sang in the choir of Puebla Cathedral both as a boy and as a man. Convidanda esta la noche began gently but then developed into a real dance number with lively solo moments.

With music from New Spain, it can be tempting to select the works that channel the style of traditional polyphony, but here we got a real feel for how the music and the musicians adapted to new conditions. Whilst a lot of rigorous work has been done in the background, there was nothing academic about this evening, there was an engaging sense of joy in this music with all concerned, singers and instrumentalists, joining together and letting their hair down a little. 

And we had a delightful encore, an English ballad Drive the cold Winter away performed in the style of one of Padilla's dance songs!

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