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The mass in question is a 'parody' mass: which means not that it is funny, but that its thematic material is derived from a non-liturgical piece, Padilla's motet Ego flos campi, thereby stressing at once the subjective Ego and the flowers of the field, redolent of the biblical eroticism of the Song of Songs. This explains why, in the mass setting, austerely spiritual music in the Roman tradition of Palestrina is occasionally gingered up by syncopations and rumba-style cross rhythms of 3 4 against 6 8: and also why the music of 'pure' devotion jostles with secular music -- mostly for voices with instruments but now and then for instruments only -- which, bred on city streets, was welcomed in, rather than eschewed by, ecclesiastical institutions. The result is wilder than but parallel to Monteverdi's contemporary fusion of the prima prattica of Palestrinian choral polyphony with the secunda prattica of then modern dance tunes, pop songs, and incipient opera. On this disc some of the 'numbers' were arranged or even composed by Padilla himself; more, by other composers, are included simply because dancing and prancing in church aisles was a permitted, even encouraged, aspect of Christian worship in seventeenth century Mexico, especially in a festive mass such as this, which is a Christ-Mass celebrating God's birth at the close of the year. The 'low' elements of the secunda prattica tend to outweigh the holy awe of the prima prattica sections. Of course, a choir including singers of the calibre of Paul Hillier has no problem in achieving equilibrium between piety and passion in the polyphonic sections in church Latin; yet what most astonishes and delights is the infectious jollity, raucous rowdiness and searing timbres of the vernacular sections, embracing coffee-coloured Spanish and Portuguese elements alongside blackly Negroid strains from Guinea, Puerto Rica and Cuba -- to which the contributions of Clara Sanabras are especially memorable. The vulgarity -- in the strict sense -- of these pieces seems paradoxically to enhance rather than to dampen the music's ecstasis, be it angelic or diabolic. Although some of today's pop concerts have overtones of orgiastic ritual, they cannot approach the dangerous élan here generated. The instrumental elements -- bolstered by baroque Mexican guitars, spiced with penetrative sackbuts and shawms, and titillated by conch-shells, rain-sticks, and other exotic percussion -- contribute their persuasive advocacy. It's not difficult to understand why this music from so remote a time and place today seems potently pertinent to us who, like the seventeenth century Mexicans, are probably more pagan than Christian: or who at least regard sacred and profane as opposites that, being complementary, are necessary to one another. The exceptionally vivid recording captures the early-morning, dewy quality that irradiates both the sweet and the sour sounds. On several counts this disc deserves to be not only 'pick of the month' but also a durable best-seller. It changes the pulse, revealing human potentialities we'd forgotten. It remains to add that the production of the disc is exemplary, the liner-notes being embellished with nineteenth century drawings depicting garbed skeletons in various kinds of theatrical display. In Mexico gaudy living never forgets the rock-bottom bone we're on the way to.

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Copyright © 17 November 2002 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK


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