Opinion & Features

‘This music is in our blood’

I’ve been learning about Lobo – who, before you ask, isn’t a child’s construction toy but a composer of the Spanish High Renaissance, also high on the agenda this month of the choir of Westminster Cathedral.

The choir is about to issue a new CD of Lobo’s choral works on the Hyperion label, with a concert to promote it on May 25. And it’s significant that neither the release nor the recital prominently features the name Lobo in its marketing. He isn’t box office. But he’s significant. And worth the interest of audiences beyond the world of academic musicology where, until recently, he tended to remain.

Born near Seville in 1555, Alonso Lobo was a priest-musician whose career developed in the shadow of more famous figures such as Victoria, Morales and Guerrero, and whose life was focused on Spain’s two main centres of church music in the 16th century, Toledo and Seville – though his reputation spread with the conquistadors to parts of South America.

After his death in 1617 his name lived on in Latin countries and commanded some respect in Rome. But northern Europe more or less forgot him. And in Britain he was little known until the 1980s when the Westminster Cathedral Choir – directed then by David Hill – began a major exploration of the Spanish High Renaissance repertoire.

Professional concert choirs took note and started to explore as well. In the process, one – just one – motet by Lobo, Versa est in luctum (written for the funeral of Philip II), scored a hit in choral circles and on disc. But that aside, it was only in Westminster Cathedral that the sweep of Lobo’s output – Masses, motets, and the settings of the Holy Week Lamentations that give the new CD its name – could be accessed with regularity, as something of a spécialité de la maison. Which is why this CD is significant.

As the cathedral’s director of music, Martin Baker, explains: “What we’ve recorded here comes from the very heart of the Counter-Reformation, and stands at the heart of the liturgy we have at Westminster Cathedral to this day. We’re not the only ones who sing it now: there are others in the field, with competing views about ‘authentic’ performance practice. But unlike the concert choirs, we sing it in its original context. And it’s hard to beat that for authenticity.

“We don’t just read this music from a book and say ‘Hello, here’s something from the distant past you might be interested in.’ We live it. The whole Spanish High Renaissance repertoire is part of our liturgical culture. And it’s important to get that across.”

Far more than most choirs, Westminster Cathedral’s repertoire is steeped in the Gregorian chant from which this High Renaissance music ultimately flows. As Baker says: “We sing from the original Gregorian notation. The modality of chant, together with its long, extended phrases, arching forms and rhythmic flexibility, is in our blood.

“When I hear other choirs, I’m often struck by how tightly they do it, as though they’re singing to a beat. But the Cathedral takes a more naturalistic approach, like waves rising and falling. It’s something the choir seems always to have had; and I try not to get in the way of that when I conduct, so it feels like a living thing rather than a performance bound by obedience to a score.”

But something else that colours the choir’s special way with Lobo and the Spanish repertoire comes from the architectural peculiarities of the building it exists to serve. The Drome, as the cathedral is affectionately known by its musicians, is an inspirationally massive space that hides the choir from view, way up behind the great High Altar in an almost separate chamber and a long way from the congregation.

“We’re invisible to them,” says Baker, “and much of the time they’re invisible to us. Which affects the dynamic of how the choir sings. It’s never inhibited by the presence of people around it, as you’d get in an Anglican cathedral. And that encourages a performing style where we think big and long. Not necessarily loud – although it certainly has to project – but vibrant.”

When the choir comes down from its behind-the-altar eyrie to confront an audience in a concert setting, the relationship shifts temporarily. But the established singing culture is still there. And it delivers a distinctive beauty, with a billowing legato that sails, ship-like, through the processes of 16th-century polyphony and is the perfect sound for a composer with Alonso Lobo’s technical requirements: rich but clear, soft-edged but confident.

The proof is in the disc. But for a physical encounter – and an opportunity to look the singers in the eye that you don’t get at High Mass – try the concert.

Westminster Cathedral Choir sing “Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance: music by Guerrero, Lobo and Victoria” on Wednesday, May 25 at 7:30pm at Westminster Cathedral SW1. Tickets 0844 844 0444. The associated CD, Lamentations, is released by Hyperion on May 27