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"Feliz Navidad - Mediterranean Christmas Music from the Renaissance"

Cécile Kempenaers, soprano; José Pizarro Alonso, tenor
Capella de la Torre
Dir: Katharina Bäuml
rec: March 24 - 27, 2008, Mandelsloh, Kirche St. Osdag
Coviello Classics - COV 20811 (© 2008) (65'53")

anon: A los maytines era [1]; Alta Reina soberana [2]; Bella de vos som amorós; Dadme Albricias [2]; E la don don [2]; Falalalan falalera [2]; No la devemos dormir [2]; Qué bonito niño chiquito! [1]; Que farem del pobre Joan [2]; Rey a quien reyes adoran [2]; Reyna muy esclarescida [1]; Riu, riu chiu [2]; Señores el qu'es nasçido [2]; Un niño nos es nasçido [2]; Verbum caro factum est [2]; Vos virgen soys nuestra madre [2]; Yo me soy la morenica [2]; Pedro DE ESCOBAR (1465-1535): Virgen bendita sin par; Sebastiano FESTA (1495-1524): Vergine sacra; Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599): A un niño llorando al hielo; Al resplendor d'una estrella; Ave virgo sanctissima; Los Reyes siguen la estrella; Pastores si nos quereis; Rossino MANTOVANO (fl 1505-1511): Lirum bilirum lirum lirum; trad (Naples): Quando nascette nino; Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (1470-1535): Ostinato vos seguire

(Sources: [1] Cancionero de la Colombina; [2] Cancionero de Uppsala)

Birgat Bahr, alto shawm, dulcian, recorder; Annette Hils, bass dulcian, recorder; Katharine Bäuml, shawm, dulcian Detlef Reimers, sackbut; Rosario Conte, guitarra espagnola, chitarra battente, theorbo; Michael Metzler, percussion

Christmas has always been an important subject in 'popular' music through the ages, as is reflected in the many tales and songs whose origins are often hard to find. In the programme notes Silke Leopold offers two explanations. First, Christmas was celebrated in winter, and for many people this was a time of hardship, in which a feast of light and warmth was most welcome. Moreover, the story about a child born in a stable and laid down in a manger, and about poor shepherds being the first to be told the good news "appealed particularly to those who were not born with silver spoons in their mouths".

This resulted in a large repertoire of songs which sometimes are directly connected to the story of Christmas, but sometimes seem to have little to do with what is told in the Bible. The repertoire on this disc, mostly taken from Spanish songbooks, testifies to this. The programme opens with Dadme albricias: "Glad tidings, children of Eve! (...) The new Adam is born. O, son of God, what good news!" The next item, Yo me soy la morenica, is closely related to a text from the Song of Songs, which many composers have set to music, 'Nigra sum'. The song says: "I am the little dark girl. (...) Darkness was caused by sin, strictly speaking. Sin was never found in me nor will it ever be". This last phrase refers, of course, to the Virgin Mary, who was traditionally identified with the girl figuring in the Song of Songs.

Some pieces reflect the world of the shepherds, for instance Falalalán: "When I come back from watching the herd, everyone calls me 'Pedro the newly-wed'. That's because I'm going with the boss' daughter for she gave me this little ring". It is not always clear what the character of a text is. In particular the veneration of the Virgin Mary could be expressed in a song which looks like a secular love song. An example on this disc is Bella, de vós som amorós: "Beautiful, I love you, if only you were mine! (...) Give me heart, because you can, my mistress, for my happiness lies in you, day and night". Whether this just a love song or whether this can be interpreted as a song expressing the love for the Virgin, I just don't know.

In many songs either the Virgin Mary or the shepherds are figuring. The former is strongly present in sacred music of a more liturgical kind, on Latin texts, like Ave virgo sanctissima by Francisco Guerrrero. Most songs on this disc are taken from the Cancionero de Uppsala, and alongside villancicos on Spanish texts we find pieces in Latin, like Verbum caro factum est. This text has also been set by many composers as liturgical music, but here the musical idiom is not different from that of the villancicos.

It is important to underline that villancicos were in no way folk music. As Silke Leopold writes, they were "artfully composed 'in a folk style', i.e., from the perspective of those who looked down on the people from above, as it were". These villancicos were sung at court and the manuscripts from which they were taken, were put together for monarchs. The Cancionero de Colombina was presumably written at the court of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. And the collection which is now known as Cancionero de Uppsala, after the city where it is preserved, contains repertoire which was performed at the court of Ferdinand of Aragon, the Duke of Calabria, in Valencia. In both collections the secular songs are in the majority.

For an ensemble of non-Spanish musicians the Capella de la Torre has captured the spirit of this music very well. They deliver sparkling and vivacious performances, with the help of two excellent singers. José Pizarro Alonso is of Spanish origin, and he may well have been a good guide to create a real Spanish flavour. His singing is absolutely idiomatic, and he has a great feeling for the character of the villancicos. Cécile Kempenaers is unmistakable from a more northern region of Europe, and her singing is less natural, but I am impressed by the way she has adapted to the repertoire and the approach it requires. The least satisfying item is Francisco Guerrrero's motet Ave virgo sanctissima which is sung too fast and lacks the exaltation and grandness it has - and should have in my view - if performed as liturgical music.

The two collections from which the music is taken, has been paid attention to before, for instance by Jordi Savall with his ensembles, but the concentration on the songs associated with Christmas is an interesting addition to the catalogue. Some songs are still sung today, mostly in a different form, like Riu, riu chiu, for instance by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge in their Festival of Lessons and Carols. This disc gives an opportunity to hear it as it was intended.

In short, this disc is a joy to listen to. Both repertoire and performances are first-rate.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Capella de la Torre

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