Marian devotion in the New World was the focus of this concert by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall. Perhaps it was coincidental that it happened to be Mother’s Day in the UK. In any case, the ensemble’s programme, titled Stream of Tears, was less a celebration of maternal love than a Lenten contemplation of Christ’s passion and death, offering as it did a sequence of post-Reformation Roman Catholic liturgical works from Iberia and the New World recalling Mary’s tears for her son and, as Andrew Stewart put it in his programme note, ‘the everyday presence of lamentation within the sacred music of the Iberian peninsula’.
Alongside familiar voices, such as that of Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664) – one of the finest Spanish composers of his generation, whose long chapel-mastership saw music-making at the Cathedral in Puebla, Mexico reach glorious heights – we had less well-known music by a trio of Portuguese composers, Diogo Dias Melgaz (1638-1700), Duarte Lobo (c.1564-1646) and Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650); and, from a pair of Spanish organists, Antonio de Cabezón (1510-66) and Francisco Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654). If some of these names were unfamiliar, then there were some unexpected voices in the choir too, a few last-minute covid-related substitutions proving necessary. And, I have to say that, for all Harry Christophers’ characteristically dynamic and imaginative direction, and the undoubted professionalism and accomplishment of the ten vocalists, the blend and intonation were not quite as consistently sure and settled as is customary for The Sixteen.
But, there was much of interest here, not least the three works by Padilla who was maestro at Puebla, colonial Mexico’s second largest city – and, under the patronage of the generous bishop, arguably the richest musical establishment in the colonies – from 1629 until his death in 1664. The early Spanish polychoral style that Padilla favoured was evident in the rhythmically buoyant Mirabilia testimonia (Wonderful are Thy testimonies) in which Christophers captured the skipping joyfulness of the opening sentiments, deftly sculpted the euphoric flowerings – “Mandasti iustitiam testimonia tua, Et veritatem nimis.” (In righteous hast thou ordained Thy testimonies, and in truth exceedingly) – and plumbed the harmonic nuances which convey the emotive twists and turns: “Tribulatio et anguistia invenerunt me; Mandata tua meditation mea est.” (Trouble and anguish have befallen me, yet are Thy precepts of my delight.)
The varying timbres and tempi of Padilla’s Lamentations for Maundy Thursday were handled with similar skill, and enhanced by the colourful instrumental contributions of harpist Joy Smith, organist Alastair Ross and theorbist Eligio Luis Quinterio. The drama of the opening declamation was followed by airy textures and heights of homophonic glory, culminating in a powerfully driven climax, “Jerusalem, Convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum” (Jerusalem, return to the Lord thy God), which was lifted further by the shining tierce de Picardie. There was some impressive word-painting in Padilla’s Salve regina, a lovely pianissimo underscoring the tentative hopefulness of the plea, “Et lesum, benedictum fructum ventris” (And show us Jesus, bless fruit of thy womb), which pushed forward to the concluding praise, the long phrases of which were beautifully shaped and sustained.
There was a Salve Regina, too, from Diogo Dias Melgaz, characterised by textual and harmonic freedom. Melgaz’ fellow Portuguese, Duarte Lobo, worked for more than half a century in Lisbon, first as music director at the Hospital Real and then as chapel-master at the Cathedral. In his Pater peccavi (Father, I have sinned) Christophers balanced the registral expansiveness and need for sustained tone with a sense of urgency and movement. And, from the third of the Portuguese trio, the Carmelite friar Manuel Cardoso, we had Sitivit anima mea (My soul hath thirsted), delivered here with a beautiful Palestrina-like flow, the imitative entries creating a warm embrace of sound.
Interleaved between the vocal numbers were two short works for organ: Antonio de Cabezón’s variations on Ave Maris Stella and Quinto tiento de medio registro de tiple de septimo tono by Francisco Correa de Arauxo. Though blind from his early years, Cabezón was one of the finest keyboard virtuosos of the early 16th century, serving numerous Spanish aristocrats including Queen Isabella, Charles V, and Philip II. Alastair Ross nimbly negotiated the elaborate counterpoint that Cabezón constructs around the plainchant cantus firmus and endeavoured to emphasise the coloristic and registral contrasts as much as the concert chamber organ would allow, and crafted Correa’s ornate melodies skilfully.
The most substantial work in the programme was not by an Iberian composer, but by a Neapolitan, albeit one who, having begun his career working in Rome and Venice, in 1719 travelled to Lisbon where João V had appointed him mestre of the royal chapel, and ten years later moved again to work at the Spanish court. We tend to associate Domenico Scarlatti with his 500-plus keyboard sonatas, but during those early years in Italy and Portugal he composed much choral music, including the hymn-like motet Iste Confessor, presented by The Sixteen in the first half of the programme and in which the clear soprano solo (Alexandra Kidgell) was complemented by varied instrumental timbres which enlivened the simple melody.
It was the Stabat Mater for 10-part choir, which Scarlatti probably wrote during his years in charge of the Capella Giulia in Rome, that most impressed and which formed a stirring conclusion to this performance. It was a joy to watch Christophers weave elaborate shapes with his hands, or flick his elbow like a magic wand, to garner expressive, vivid singing from his ensemble. There was terrific vitality and drive here. The intricacies of the music were revealed in their splendour, each singer confident in their role within the counterpoint – Mark Dobell might be singled out for assailing the demanding tenor line – and the suspended dissonances brought forth the pathos of Mary’s lament. In the latter sections, the vocal sonorousness deepened beautifully, reinforcing the telling harmonic progressions. The virtuosity and agility of the Amen enhanced the fervency of the closing appeal, “Fa cut animae donetur Paradisi gloria” (let my soul be granted the glory of Paradise).
The evening closed with a fitting encore: Prayer for Ukraine by Mykola Lysenko.
The Sixteen: Harry Christophers (conductor); Emilia Morton, Alexandra Kidgell, Cecilia Osmond, Katy Hill (sopranos); Simon Ponsford, David Gould (altos); Mark Dobell, Steven Harrold (tenors); Eamonn Dougan, Stuart Young (basses); Joy Smith (harp), Alastair Ross (organ), Eligio Luis Quinterio (theorbo)
Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664) – Mirabilia testimonia; Diogo Dias Melgaz (1638-1700) – Salve regina; Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) – Ave maris stella; Duarte Lobo (c.1564-1646) – Pater peccavi; Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) – Iste confessor; Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650) – Sitivit anima mea; Padilla – Lamentations for Maundy Thursday, Salve regina; Francisco Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654) – Quinto tiento de medio registro de tiple de séptimo tono; Domenico Scarlatti – Stabat mater.
Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 27th March 2022.