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A Spanish Nativity

Audiophile Audition gives verdict on Spanish Christmas disc

Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition

This fascinating, extremely well-performed program attempts to present Christmas music from what is considered the golden age of the Spanish Renaissance, the so-called Siglo de Oro. It is remarkable—as you can see from the headnote, these amazingly prolific and fecund composers all overlapped within a generation or two, producing some of the most phenomenal and complex—not to mention beautiful—music of the entire period. But while this is titled “A Spanish Nativity”, the main work here, round which all the other pieces gather, is not from the Christmas season at all, but instead the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Musically it all fits, but I am still a bit perplexed by the choice, as there are a plethora of other genuine Christmas works that could have served equally well for the intentions of this specifically listed Christmas program.

Be that as it may, it is still performed by stile antico, which is enough reason for those in the know to buy it, and certainly anyone sampling this disc will not be disappointed. The aforementioned lynchpin to this outing is the magnificent Missa Beata Dei genetrix Maria by Alonso Lobo, the maestro di capilla at the Toledo Cathedral. This “parody mass”, like so many others of the time, borrows its thematic motives from a motet by the composer’s own mentor, Francisco Guerruro, Beata Dei genetrix Maria. Guerruro of course made his career at the Seville Cathedral, as a singer, assistant, and finally, the maestro. Lobo employs the same scoring as Guerruro’s mass, and the music is extraordinarily wedded to the motet in a way that almost confuses the two composers. Lobo, who based five of his six masses on his mentor’s music, seems as familiar with his master’s muse as his own; one can easily imagine Guerruro himself composing Lobo’s work, were it not for the advances that Lobo makes in the harmonic language of the time, as one following chronologically after the older composer.

This whole program is centered on the Lobo work, with other pieces by the noted artists of the time interspersed among the movements of the mass. A particular inspiration is the inclusion of the villancicos, dance-like and rather unruly songs that used the vernacular and were quite controversial at the time despite their extreme popularity. Many composers “crossed over” in the genre, while others maintained a strictly highbrow approach to church music and regretted the influence. Nevertheless, their inclusion in this program provides a view that perhaps only time can give, and they seem to fit snugly in the overall context of the program.

Sound is clear as a bell, and performances exemplary. This is an easy choice.