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Joseph RUIZ SAMANIEGO (? - 1670): "La vida es sueño..."

Los Músicos de Su Alteza
Dir: Luis Antonio González

rec: Sept 2008, Daroca, Iglesia de San Miguel
Alpha - 153 (© 2009) (69'23")
Liner-notes: E/F/S; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

De esplendor se doran los aires, villancico a la Virgen del Pilar; No puedo más, que me voy, villancico a San Francisco de Asís; Oigan en breve ensalada, jácara a la Navidad; Que se abrasa Belén, villancico de Navidad; Quien goza del amor goza lo mejor, villancico a la Expectación; Sirenas del viento, villancico a la Virgen del Pilar; Sonoras voces al aire pueblan, villancico a la Virgen del Pilar; Tierno manjar, pan divino, villancico al Sacramento; Tocata de ministriles; Venga norabuena del mar la estrella, villancico a la Expectación y a la Navidad

Olalla Alemán, Agnieszka Grzywacz, Marta Infante, soprano; Paz Martínez, contralto; Gabriel Díaz, alto; Íñigo Casalí, José Pizarro, tenor; Jesús García Aréjula, bass; Lluis Coll, cornett; Jordi Giménez, Francesc Xavier Banegas, sackbut; Carles Cristòbal, bajon; Joaquim Guerra, bajon, bajoncillo alto; Josep Borr às, bajoncillo tiple; Fernando Sánchez, bajoncillo tenor; Pablo Prieto, Prisca Stalmarski, Edoardo Fenoll, violin; Pedro Reula, violone, vihuela de arco; Roger Azcona, violone grosso; Isabel Maicas, harp; Josep Maria Martí, theorbo, guitar; Luis Antonio González, harpsichord; Alfonso Sebastián, harpsichord, organ

For many lovers of early music Spain is almost identical with the classical polyphony of masters as Victoria, Morales and Guerrero. The music of later eras is largely unknown, and even in Spain the exploration of this repertoire is a relatively recent development. During the last decade or so a number of discs with 17th- and 18th-century music from Spain have been released. Several of them have been reviewed on this site. Earlier this year I heard the recording of a concert by Los Músicos de Su Alteza through the internet. They performed music by Joseph Ruiz Samaniego, a composer I had never heard about. Searching at the internet I learned that the ensemble had recorded this repertoire for Alpha. When I was given the chance to pick some discs to be reviewed on this site I didn't hesitate to put this disc on my list. Although it was released in 2009 it is still worth paying attention to. My positive impressions of the concert were confirmed by this disc.

Little is known about Joseph Ruiz Samaniego, who doesn't have an entry in New Grove. Therefore I have only the liner-notes in the booklet to rely on. The year and place of Ruiz Samaniego's birth are not known. His first extant music dates from 1653. That makes it rather odd to mention the year of his birth as "ca. 1653" in the booklet and on the reverse of the case. In 1654 he was maestro de capilla of the cathedral of Tarazona, a small town in Aragón. In 1661 he moved to Zaragoza, where he became maestro de capilla of the church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the second church of the city. He remained here the rest of his life, although during his last year he was dismissed for some time being accused of neglecting his duties.

In regard to the repertoire recorded here it is especially noteworthy to point out that in El Pilar, as the church was known, the composer had quite a number of performers at his disposal, not only singers but also instrumentalists. "Between 1661 and 1670, the years Ruiz Samaniego spent there, its musical chapel was large enough to enable the performance of the splendid concerted and polychoral works that were then in vogue, with one singer per part. He even had access to a wind ensemble (copla de ministriles), playing cornett, bassoon and tenor bassoons, shawms and sackbuts, and he also made use of the instruments of the violin family. For the continuo there were organs, harpsichords, harps, guitars, archlutes and theorbos." Also important is the fact that from 1669 he was able to work with the Músicos de Su Alteza, an ensemble created by the vicar-general of Aragón, who was the illegitimate son of King Philip IV. Through him Ruiz Samaniego had access to music by foreign composers, for instance from Italy. That was by no means common as Spain was musically speaking rather isolated in Europe.

It is quite possible that these compositions also encouraged him to write in various scorings, from solo voice and basso continuo up to pieces for four choirs of voices and instruments. About 200 compositions from his pen have survived. A large part comprises villancicos, the term which is used for any sacred piece on a Spanish text, with an alternation of coplas (verses) and estrabillos (refrains). The villancico found its origin in the theatre of the 15th century, and that is still noticeable after the genre was adopted by the church. Many villancicos show the influences of popular culture, both in lyrics and music. This also had its effects on the way the repertoire was performed. "[The] singers no doubt performed the works in accordance, indulging in vivid interpretations of the feelings and emotions expressed in the texts, as if they were in a theatre rather than a church - for which, of course, they came under fire from moralists and censors", Luis Antonio Gonzáles states in his liner-notes.

One of the most striking examples of a 'theatrical' piece is Oigan en breve ensalada, a jácara a la Nadividad. A jácara is a dance which was incorporated in villancicos in the 17th century. The singers take the roles of people from the underworld, telling of the birth of Christ through a text which includes puns and the titles of various comedies by then popular Spanish playwrights such as Lope de Vega. Often villancicos performed in concerts and recorded on disc have a comparable character, extraverted in nature, with infectious rhythms. This disc includes various villancicos of a different kind. One of the most expressive pieces is Tierno manjar, pan divino. It is dedicated to the Holy Sacrament, and begins with the words: "Tender food, divine bread, sweet and delicious sustenance which only the knowledge of God can have procured for us". This is brilliantly depicted in the music by Ruiz Samaniego. Remarkable is also Quien goza del amor goza lo mejor, a villancico for the Feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on 18 December. Its estribillo includes a passage with dissonances which are rather uncommon in this repertoire.

The Virgin Mary takes an important part in the villancico repertoire, and certainly in the oeuvre of Ruiz Samaniego. Three pieces are dedicated to the Virgen del Pilar. She had a special meaning to El Pilar, Ruiz Samaniego's church. "Tradition has it that the first church of El Pilar was built by the Apostle St James after the Virgin Mary appeared to him on a column (pilar) of jasper that had been borne by angels to the bank of the river Ebro at Caesaraugusta (as Zaragoza was known in Roman times). As a result of the miracles attributed to the Virgen del Pilar the sanctuary became a place of pilgrimage, especially after 1640 and the miracle of Calanda, by which a young muleteer, who had lost a leg several years previously, is said to have it restored to him". The three villancicos for the Virgen del Pilar are polychoral: Sonoras voces el aire pueblan, Sirenas del viento and De esplendor se doran los aires. In the texts the river Ebro and the "pillar" regularly turn up. In the latter piece the instruments play a prominent role, whereas in the former the composer makes use of echo effects.

This programme shows that there is more to the genre of the villancico than the exuberant and often exciting pieces we usually hear. They can be of considerable depth as well. And in the polychoral pieces one is immediately reminded of the splendour of the San Marco in Venice, also due to the use of the ensemble of wind and strings and various basso continuo instruments. The performances deserve nothing but praise. The singing is first-rate, although one of the altos is probably a bit weak in volume. In the more introverted and expressive pieces they sing with great sensitivity, in which full attention is paid to the text. The instrumental ensemble produces a gorgeous sound, and the vocal and instrumental forces blend perfectly. González writes that "a composer such as Joseph Ruiz Samaniego deserves to be saved from oblivion". He is absolutely right. This disc bears witness to the quality of his oeuvre and the ensemble which took appropriately its name from the ensemble which Ruiz Samaniego made use of, are the perfect advocates.

This is a fascinating disc - another fine addition to the growing discography of 17th-century Spanish music.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Los Músicos de Su Alteza

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