New Worlds – South America: The AAM and VOCES8 at Milton Court

The Academy of Ancient Music’s New Worlds series stopped off in South America this week, by way of Cambridge and London, when they were joined by VOCES8 to explore the music of the Italian baroque, written by Italian composers at home and abroad.  The focus of the programme, which I heard in Milton Court Concert Hall, was the Missa San Ignacio by Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726), its five movements forming a Vespers service complemented by four Psalm settings and a double-choir Magnificat by Palestrina, with instrumental items woven into the sequence.

Zipoli may not be a familiar name today, but he has a street named after him both in his native town of Prato, Tuscany, and in Córdoba, Argentina, where he died of tuberculosis at the age of only 37 years.  Under the patronage of Cosimo III, the Archduke of Tuscany, he received his musical education first in Florence, and then in Naples where he was a student of Alessandro Scarlatti, later travelling to Bologna and finally arriving in Rome in 1710, where he was a pupil of Bernado Pasquini.  He was appointed organist of the Jesuit Church in Rome in 1715.  The following year he joined the Society of Jesus and left Italy for Seville, to await passage to the Paraguay province.  Along with 53 other prospective Jesuit missionaries he set sail from Cadiz in April 1717, his destination the South American Mission Stations – also known as ‘reductions’ – which were well-known centres for teaching and evangelizing the native Indian population. 

Music and performance were an essential part of that missionary practice, and from the beginning of the seventeenth century until the expulsion of the Society from the Americas in 1767, an astonishing corpus of music was composed in centres across Central and South America.  Zipoli’s work was especially esteemed, and his music was copied and disseminated after his death, one fellow Jesuit, José Peramàs commenting at the end of the eighteenth century: ‘It is fair to say that anyone who has heard just for once, some piece of music by Zipoli, will hardly like some other piece, as if the one who eats honey would be compelled to eat something bad tasting instead’. 

Domenico Zipoli

In Europe he was largely forgotten though; Vincent d’Indy was rare in showing an interest in his work when, in his Cours de composition musicale (1903), he declared Zipoli to be ‘one of the best Italian teachers from the aspect of musicality and elegance of writing; his qualities of counterpoint would unite him with the likes of Frescobaldi, Pachelbel, and Bach’.  In the 1970s, however, Zipoli’s name was revived when 23 of his works were discovered among a large collection of manuscripts at the San Rafael and Santa Ana missions in eastern Bolivia making the performance of this musical legacy possible once more.

At Milton Court, the Missa San Ignacio struck me as charming but not particularly profound.  There is less contrapuntal energy than we hear in the music of those who taught and influenced Zipoli in Italy – composers such as Palestrina, Pasquini, Scarlatti and Gabrieli, and whose music we also heard here.  It was, of course, immaculately performed by VOCES8 and the AAM.  Solos by Andrea Haines, Molly Noon and Barnaby Smith were tastefully executed, but at times there seemed a lack of tonal variety.  The ‘Confitebur tibi’ was the most engaging of the movements; here there was more polyphonic punch.  And, the vivacious violin introduction and buoyant oboes – Leo Duarte and Lars Henriksson standing and lifting their instruments’ bells high – brought brightness to the ‘Laudate Dominum’.  I wondered if the placement of the eight singers behind the instrumentalists hindered the immediacy of their communication with the audience?  It also necessitated lots of to-ing and fro-ing from the soloists.  The Milton Court gallery, from which VOCES8 began the concert, might have been a more effective platform for lifting the vocal sound into the auditorium, perhaps.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Dixit Dominus could also have benefited from a bit more ensemble vigour, but there was some nice interplay between the instrumentalists and alto Katie Jeffries-Harris in the ‘Tecum principium’.  Jonathan Pacey’s bass was rhythmically neat in the ‘Dominus a dextris’, matching the taut dotted motifs of the unison violins and continuo, as well as agile and accurate in the leaping melismas of the closing phrase.  Cummings garnered energy through the shifting tempi and meters of the ‘Judicabit’.  Where VOCES8 really shone was in Palestrina’s double-choir Magnificat primi toni – repertory which is their musical home ground, so to speak – which was characterised by their customary ensemble blend, pinpoint intonation and seamless interweaving of the contrapuntal lines.  The gentle lullaby Silencio, no chiste el aire (Silence, wind, breathe not a sound) by the seventeenth-century Spaniard, Diego de Cáseda – who was Master of the Chapel of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Pilar in Zaragosa, the capital of Aragon, before travelling to the mission of the Moxos in Bolivia – was equally soothing.

It was in the AAM’s instrumental interludes that the tonal character of horsehair on gut, ringing open strings, the oboe’s nasally warmth, and the spreading colours of the low theorbos (William Carter and Kristiina Watt) lifted the temperature of the performance.  The Sinfonia from Pasquini’s oratorio Le Sete di Christo was stylishly springy, while Zipoli’s Verso do organo was propelled by some juicy oboe playing and spreading theorbo inflections.  I particularly enjoyed Biagio Marini’s Sonata in eco for 3 violins, which had an almost madrigalian playfulness and was spiritedly played.

The programme was framed by the music of South America itself.  In using music as a tool of religious conversion Christian missionaries often employed indigenous languages, rather than Latin, in their religious compositions.  The anonymous Incan Quechua hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin (which dates from the early 1600s, and is considered to be the first published polyphonic work in the New World), is one such example.  It was designed to be sung as the singers processed into the church, and that’s how it was performed here, with VOCES8 proceeding to a drum’s sombre beat along the two aisles of the gallery and then forming an ensemble aloft, at the front of the concert hall.  In the traditional Quechuan huayno, ‘Naranjitay’, which closed the performance, William Carter, switching to baroque guitar, injected a note of spontaneity which the woodwind duo looked keen to take up, but Cummings didn’t seem inclined to loosen the reins and let the dance go with a swing.

I was interested to read the account by Jeffrey Skidmore – who, with his ensemble, Ex Cathedra, has recorded two discs of music from 17th– and 18th-century Latin America – of his visit to those aforementioned Mission Stations in the jungle of eastern Bolivia, which were restored in the 1970s, where he witnessed concerts and masses which he describes as ‘packed to the roof-tops with children watching and listening attentively in the doorways and at windows’.  Skidmore reflects on the performance practices which involved the whole community: ‘This is happy, optimistic music which reflects the Utopian dream of the reductions.  The modern performer has to recapture these essential ingredients.’  Cummings notes the colonial process of which Zipoli and the missionaries’ music was a part and remarks that ‘It’s possible to perform his music without necessarily condoning the system within which he worked … We’re not celebrating it – we’re seeing it as a historical fact and finding the power of music through it.’  I came away from this performance, in which high musical standards were set and maintained, reflecting on whether the traditional concert hall experience is the best means to recreate some of that uninhibited spirit that Skidmore describes, and capture the true power of the music?

The Academy of Ancient Music’s New Worlds series continues until July 2022.

Claire Seymour

New Worlds – South America: VOCES8, The Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings (director)

Anon. – Hanacpachap cussicuinin, Pasquini – Sinfonia from La Sete di Christo, Zipoli – Tantum Ergo (from Missa San Ignacio), Zipoli – Verso do organo, A. Scarlatti – Dixit Dominus, Zipoli – Confitebor tibi, Diego de Cáseda Silencio, no chiste el aire, Zipoli – Beatus Vir, G. Gabrieli – Sonata No.21 for 3 violins, Zipoli – Laudate Dominum, Palestrina – Magnificat primi toni, Marini – Sonata in eco for 3 violins, A. Scarlatti Gloria Patri from the Dixit Dominus, Trad. (arr. Chaff) Naranjitay Hiaiño.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Thursday 25th November 2021.