Ariel Ramírez is an Argentinean composer born in 1921; Misa Criolla, a 1964 mass for tenor, mixed chorus, percussion, keyboard and (especially) Andean folk instruments. It appears on several disks; I’m going to recommend two featuring José Carreras and Mercedes Sosa. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Ramírez studied the formalities of Western composition for years, then discovered his own nation’s back-country music and put the two together. He got a little lucky; he finished his setting of the non-Latin Mass as the Second Vatican Council was in the news. The worthies of the Catholic church realized that Misa Criolla was as articulate an expression of faith as anyone had produced in a long time, and all of a sudden Ramírez was in an enviable situation as the composer of a popularly-successful piece of music that had the church behind it.
The original recording, in 1964, was a huge hit, but I’ve never heard it. The famous version is the one with Carreras, but I’ve heard more than one critic compare it unfavorably with the original, which I really must try to track down.
The Music · To be brutally honest, Ramírez has been something of a one-hit wonder and without this work would be at best a footnote to musical history. But if you’re only going to have one hit, Misa Criolla is a good one to have.
Pretty well everyone’s heard Andean folk instruments now; anywhere there’s busking, in a public park market or the subway, they turn up, with their Pan-pipes and big drums and acoustic guitars. Mostly it sounds kind of New-Agey, but that’s because that’s what works for buskers.
Ramírez, on the other hand, takes the text of the Catholic Mass in the purest high Castilian Spanish, sets it to an insanely-beautiful sequence of melodies, and places the solo voice and chorus, with piano and some extra drums, in front of the Andean band, and the orchestration is a triumph, every second of it; it makes all those buskers sound anodyne, which indeed they mostly are.
I could go on about one section or another or this particularly clever placement of the drum behind the chorus or the guitars swirling around the soaring vocals, but let’s save some time: Everyone whom I’ve played this for, ranging from my Mom to drug-addled Seventies head-bangers, has liked it. Most probably, you will too.
I see that there are lots of versions for sale online, and this music is just way too beautiful to subject to MP3 emasculation, so a shiny silver disc is the way to go. The question is, which one?
Sampling It · José Carreras is the least-famous of the “Three Tenors”, he’s a serious opera singer and treats Misa Criolla with overt reverence. Mercedes Sosa is a popular Argentinean folk singer (called “La Negra” for her flowing jet-black hair); she sings Misa Criolla straightforwardly with a folk feel. I’d hate to be without either version.
Sosa’s version (from 1999) is easier to listen to. It’s recorded with fairly conventional audio values, and she doesn’t try to overdo it, just flows through the tracks letting the music do the work; she’s got an appealingly lived-in voice and a whole lot of rhythm, and, well, how could you not like it; beautiful tunes, beautiful arrangements, and an appealing vocal?
Carreras’ take, from 1990, is something else again. He takes each note, polishes it till it glows, and explores it as he passes through, sometimes lingering and others rushing, drops in behind the instruments and choir then leaps out like a tiger, and goes into full operatic howl mode for the big Paz a los hombres chorus that’s at the centre of Missa Criolla. On top of this, it’s recorded with audiophile values, which means the quiet sections are really quiet, you’re going to have to turn off the background noise and you’re still going to be surprised when the drums and pan-pipes and chorus and José get their mojo working on the loud parts.
I really don’t know; Mercedes sings a part and you think “Damn that’s a lovely tune”; José goes to work on it and you think “My God, that phrase is like an alabaster vase on a crystal shelf.” Which is better? Your call.
Me, I like histrionics and heroics, and I think no singer ever has come close to José’s skill at filling a room and your heart with a phrase sung pianissimo so you find you’re not breathing because you couldn’t stand to miss a microsecond. So I’m probably in the Carreras camp, but only by a bit.