Here’s a surprising discovery that many choral music fans may have missed–but definitely shouldn’t. Cuban composer Esteban Salas (1725-1803) may have been separated by an ocean from his European contemporaries, but his music is solidly in the mode of the Spanish Baroque and even gives voice to the classical models of Haydn and Mozart. As maestro de cappilla at the cathedral of Santiago de Cuba (1764-1803), Salas wrote a substantial body of liturgical music, much of it devoted to the Marian rites, and this excellent recording offers a splendid introduction to this master’s varied styles and impressive, vocally astute compositional technique.
But the real draw here is the singing, which is nothing short of revelatory. Cuba’s Ars Longa de La Havane, directed by Teresa Paz (who founded the ensemble along with Aland López in 1994), reaches the highest level of choral artistry, supported by equally accomplished instrumentalists, and when you realize that the entire group consists of only 15 performers–and from Cuba, a country largely cut off, especially in terms of classical music, from listeners in the rest of the world–you’re even more impressed with the rich, full-bodied, vibrant sound and almost larger-than-life expressive power they achieve. The voices are not only perfectly balanced for ensemble purposes, but project a wonderful array of individual timbres that enhance, enrich, and complement their performing partners and fully serve the music.
Highlights include the plush-textured Magnificat, the elegant, sonorous little gem (less than two minutes) Assumpta est Maria, the chant-based Ave maris stella, the dramatic villancico Guerra viene declarando for double choir, and the lively Pues la fábrica de un templo, with scurrying strings and dancing rhythms. The choir Maîtrise de la Cathédrale de Metz joins Ars Longa for some selections, and the presence of this group from France is an illustration of the partnership that produced this recording, involving institutions from that country as well as Spain and Cuba who are interested in bringing to light 18th-century sacred music by Salas and others. The sound is ideal, and the rewards offered by this disc are substantial. Baroque choral fans, go back and give this another look. It’s a winner.