WE OWE it to the assiduous researches of Jeffrey Skidmore, the founder of the Birmingham-based choir Ex Cathedra, that a wealth of Renaissance and Baroque sacred choral music from Mexico has emerged, and perhaps especially the magnificent music of Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664), latterly (from 1628) organist of Puebla Cathedral, which lies some 80 miles south-east of Mexico City.
Much of this music Ex Cathedra has recorded for Hyperion, to well-deserved acclaim. Since then, Skidmore has turned his attention to the libraries of Brazil, engaging with scholars and exploring the wide range of sacred music from the South American country, a repertoire dating from somewhat later than Mexico’s.
It includes almost 250 works by the important mixed-race composer José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767-1830), whose Missa pastoral para a noite de natal (Pastoral Mass for Christmas Night) played an important part in the Ex Cathedra consort’s buoyant exploration of the fruits of this research in Birmingham Town Hall.
Possibly the most exuberant delight of all was the extract from a vilancico, Matais de incêndios, a work of uncertain provenance, although possibly by António Marques Lésbio (1639-1709), a wonderfully perky, staccato, short-stanza piece with lively refrain. The choir has sung similar works, partly of secular origin, from the Mexican repertoire, and a similar zest and excitement breathed through its joyous performance here.
Nunes Garcia’s Missa pastoril centres on a hauntingly beautiful shepherd-like melody that recurs throughout. The orchestration used here (the original version was for organ), including two flutes and two horns, produced just the right balance with the voices.
It is simple stuff, recalling perhaps the Czech Christmas Masses that were becoming so popular. Especially striking were a dramatic and unexpected pianissimo (”judicare vivos et mortuos”), a spirited and apt soprano outburst at ”Qui cum patre et filio” (both from the Credo), and a beautifully intoned tenor solo (by Paul Bentley-Angell) in the Benedictus. The tenderness of the Agnus Dei, joined by two flutes, was touching. Perhaps most moving of all was the “qui tollis”, set for alto and ravishingly sung by Leonora Dawson-Bowling.
Other works were woven amid the movements of the Mass. These included pieces by José Joachim (Joaquim) Lobo de Mesquita (1746-1805), organist of several leading churches and composer of three items heard here: a setting of the Lord’s Prayer (in Portuguese, Padre nosso, que estais nos céus’); the hymn to the Virgin “Hail Mary, full of Grace” (”Ave Maria, cheia de graça”); and a vibrant doxology, enhanced by telling piano interventions.
Some of this music from the first half seemed perhaps a little tame, maybe harmonically obvious, compared with Ex Cathedra’s thrilling previous unearthing of Mexican material. But the return of the opening villancico — four joyful stanzas that follow on from the opening examples — was pure delight.
It remained to be seen whether the composer João de Deus de Castro Lobo (1794-1832), whose extensive Matinas de Natal occupied all the second half, could upstage his compatriots. I think it must be said that with Ex Cathedra’s singing he did, and Skidmore writes that he was much taken with this composer.
Much of this work, to celebrate Christmas, is joyous and uplifting. It starts with a kind of Jubilate married with the Benedicite, although, in fact, the joyous words focus on a repeated “Venite adoremus” (perhaps over-repeated) with plainsong intertwined. There is a section setting a wonderful Ambrosian hymn, “Jesu, Redemptor omnium”, which keeps bursting out into a vital dance.
Lobo follows this with no fewer than eight responsories, all nicely different in character. The first has a Mozartian ring, then an almost military robustness for “Gaudet exercitus Angelorum’; the next features a gorgeous soprano solo (Elizabeth Adams) and an extraordinarily confidential, almost whispered, conclusion. The third, “Quem vidistis, pastores?” rides along cheerfully with some lovely touches shared by soprano and alto soloists. There are some quite striking key changes, and one noticeable thing is the way that Castro Lobo sets some words and syllables very quickly, almost but not quite gabbling — an effective but tricky detail that Skidmore and his singers mastered effortlessly.
The most glorious instrumental detail pervading the next couple of responsories was the superbly refined violin solos of the leader, Jorge Jimenez, sometimes shared with his violin colleague, James Toll. Paired flutes also shone in the fifth, and some changes of dynamic in the sixth were quite bracing. Horns have their say in the seventh, and, as well as a wonderful diminuendo in the voice, Lobo allots a flute solo some spectacular coloratura decoration.
The eighth and last was one of the best of all: lovely sections for alto and tenor, and some horns that could have hailed straight from the hunt, or from Napoleon’s serried ranks — an era that Lobo lived through in his childhood and teens. It would have been interesting to hear these works performed by the serried ranks of Ex Cathedra’s full forces. The concert might have gone off with even more of a bang.