Stile Antico — A Spanish Nativity (Harmonia Mundi)
"There's something very exciting about being able to achieve a very rich sound at times — a very delicate sound at times — but with no instruments at all, just the pure natural voice. Right from when I started listening to this kind of repertoire, when I was a a boy, I think that's what really captivated me right at the beginning."
James Arthur is a bass in the Renaissance vocal ensemble Stile Antico. Recently, I spoke with James and soprano Rebecca Hickey about their third Christmas release, A Spanish Nativity, which celebrates the Spanish golden age of the 16th century.
James: "The golden age itself was this period under King Philip II. There was a huge flourishing of the arts. Spain was at the center of Europe, trading with America, a great seafaring nation. And you had wonderful composers that feature on our discs like Morales, Guerrero, Victoria, who's probably most famous. And we've also got a few lesser known composers like Rimonte and Flecha, but who all equally had a wonderful output as well."
The recording is centered around a work by Alonso Lobo. And it was published back in 1602. Why is this particular work and this composer so significant?
James: "Lobo sits in the middle of this group of composers. He learned a lot from Guerrero, who had also learned a lot from Morales before him. And Lobo wrote six masses in this 1602 publication, five of which are all based on motets by Guerrero. So, he obviously looked up to his chapel master greatly."
Rebecca: "On the disc, you will hear the Guerrero motet, and then all the movements of the mass by Lobo follow on. And you will hear there's a lot of points of imitation. For example, the 'Alleluia' in the motet is a lovely cascading, falling figure. And that comes again and again in the mass, normally at the end of each movement, like in an 'Amen' or 'Hosanna' in three time. So it's all very clever how he uses the material that Guerrero writes in his motet."
I want to ask you to tell us a little bit more about Francisco Guerrero because he had a very colorful past. It even involved pirates at one point.
James: "He traveled extensively. His most famous trip is when he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he was twice captured by pirates, in fact. And he was robbed so badly that he had absolutely nothing left. When he came back to Spain, he had to go into a debtor's prison in Seville. It was the cathedral authorities who actually rescued him and paid his debts and allowed him to come back and keep keep making music for them."
Each section of the mass by Alonso Lobo is interspersed with motets by other composers, including a composer we haven't yet talked about. Matteo Flecha, is that his name?
James: "That's correct. He was known as 'El Viejo' — the Elder. He is the oldest composer on this disc. He's best known for this other curious style of composition, which is known as an en salada, which is literally a salad. It's a piece which is a mixture of different texts, different languages, dialects, also nonsense words, and again, uses bits of popular songs. So it's similar to the villancicos."
Rebecca: "The other piece on this disc by him, 'Ríu ríu chíu,' which is one of the most famous Spanish Christmas carols, also focuses on the Virgin Mary and asking for protection against the wolf attacking the Virgin Mary."
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Stile Antico — A Spanish Nativity (Amazon)