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High praise for ‘A Spanish Nativity’ in Dallas

Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News (16 December, 2018)

The Renaissance witnessed a great flowering of literature, the arts and architecture. Of the musical riches the best known are probably from Italy, notably the church music of Palestrina and Giovanni Gabrieli. English composers including Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons are known in at least some church-music circles.

Performing Friday night at the well-filled Church of the Incarnation, the internationally acclaimed English choral ensemble Stile Antico devoted its Christmas-into-Epiphany program to unaccompanied Spanish music of the Renaissance, most of it unknown on these shores. Indeed, rare’s even the experienced American choral singer who would have known anything on the program except Tomás Luis de Victoria’s motet “O magnum mysterium” and the spirited “Riu, riu, chiu” attributed to Mateo Flecha el Viejo. Dallas’ Orchestra of New Spain has explored later Spanish church music, from the baroque and early classical eras, but these dozen British singers, performing without conductor, stuck to earlier repertory.

Spain here suffered not a whit in comparison with Italy and England — or, for that matter, the Franco-Flemish masters of the Renaissance. There was, however, less attempt at illustrating texts through specific musical devices — “word painting” — than in English music of the period. The choral writing here, sometimes suggesting echoes in a reverberant cathedral, was more purely instrumental in effect.

The centerpiece of the program was the Mass “Beata Dei genetrix” by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617). In sophisticated polyphony it explored and expanded upon motifs from an earlier motet by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), notably the cascading scales of the motet’s concluding “alleluia”.

The imploring “Kyrie” was a study in dense, close-wrought counterpoint and surprising chromatic inflections. The more celebratory “Gloria” couldn’t have been more different, its textures brighter and more open.

Interspersed among the mass movements were both learned motets and populist villancicos. The latter told and contemplated Christmas stories in secular song-and-dance idioms — and in the vernacular Spanish, as opposed to the motets’ Latin. But even these incorporated fugal devices, and the salada “El Viejo el Jubilate” began with a very churchy treatment of Psalm 100 (“O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands”) before breaking into earthier idioms for an imaginary confrontation between the Virgin Mary and sin (here characterized as “a French fool.”).

The program closed with an extended and richly textured motet setting by Cristóbal Morales, in Latin, of St. Matthew’s account of the Wise Men’s visit.

Vocal variety was supplied by sometimes cutting back to just three, four or five voices. Throughout, the singing, without vibrato but firmly supported and projected, was polished and sophisticated. Acclaimed in prestigious venues around the world, and on recordings, these were singers who knew just when to bring out an inner voice, just when to emphasize a climactic note or a pivotal dissonance. They always knew where the music was going and why. It was a superb concert.