Christmas in Puebla

Siglo de Oro/Allies


From one point of view, this album is a shocking tease, because travel to the beautiful city of Puebla in central Mexico, and the Renaissance Cathedral there, is not an option at the end of 2020. But that is what 30-year-old composer and instrument-maker Juan Gutierrez de Padilla did exactly 400 years ago, leaving his post at Cadiz Cathedral to seek his fortune in the colony of New Spain.

He found work as assistant to Gaspar Fernandes, who had made a similar journey from Portugal around 25 years earlier, and then succeeded him as maestro of the cathedral in 1629, composing music for the church until his death in 1664. For half of that time Puebla Cathedral was a building site, and although it was dedicated in 1649, work on it would carry on for another 200 years.

It helps to think of this place of worship as a mix of inside and outside when listening to this seasonal release. What conductor Patrick Allies has assembled for his golden-toned singers and their instrumental accomplices is a notional Christmas celebration that combines the more formal motet and mass-settings of Padilla and his contemporaries, with the altogether livelier ‘villancicos’ which he and others composed. They have dance rhythms and lyrics that speak directly of the devotional life of the congregation, as well as of the nativity – think gospel songs programmed next to traditional hymns in our own age.

Based on the archives of the cathedral in Padilla’s time, the programme incorporates compositions by his predecessor Fernandes, his successor, Juan Garcia de Zespedes, native Mexican Francisco de Vidales, Palestrina and the Catalan Joan Cererols. The latter’s Serafin, que con dulce harmonia is a highlight, even if its inclusion is stretching the concept a little, while Zespedes’ Convidando esta la noche – by far the most familiar tune on the album – gets things off to a very lively start.

The longest single offering, and the pinnacle of the set, is a late example of one of the many villancicos by Padilla himself, A la xacara xacarilla. With six of the eight singers taking two verses each, it is lyrically a charming mix of the Christmas story and the way it is celebrated, like many carols in English.

This group’s fourth Delphian album in as many years deserves as much praise as its predecessors. If none of us can choose to go somewhere warm and sunny for Christmas, Siglo de Oro and Patrick Allies bring that sort of celebration into your home.
Keith Bruce