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"15th Century Song and the bowed vihuela"

Cantar alla Viola

rec: July 27 - 30, 2020, Vimbodí-Poblet (Tarragona), Ermita de la mare de Déu dels Torrents
Da Vinci Classics - C00503 (© 2021) (65'38")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

Alexander AGRICOLA (1445-1506): Belles sur toutes; Tota pulchra es; Alonso DE ALBA (fl c1500): Ave Maria; anon: Fortuna desperata; Vil lieber zit; Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Tant plus ayme; Triste plaisir et douloureuse joye; Juan DEL ENCINA (1468-1529): Ay triste que vengo; Pues que mi triste penar; Heinrich ISAAC (1450-1517): Al mein mut; Ein frölich wesen; Fortuna desperata; Suesser Vatter Herre Got; Francisco DE PEÑALOSA (1470-1528): A tierras agenas; Alegraos, males esquivos; El triste que nunca os vió; Nigra sum sed formosa; Niña erguideme los ojos; Pues vivo en perder la viva; Que dolor más me doliera; Unica est columba mea

Nadine Balbeisi, soprano; Fernando Marín, bowed vihuela

During the renaissance period, very few music was written that was specifically intended for instrumental performance. If such music was written, it was either for keyboard instruments, in particular the organ, or for various plucked instruments, for instance the lute. That does not mean that instruments did not play an important part in music life. Improvisation was one of the main skills of instrumentalists, who mostly played vocal music, which had to be adapted to the features of their instrument. They played either individually or together as an ensemble. Instruments also played a role in performances of vocal music, both in church and in secular surroundings. They could play colla voce or substitute for one or several voices. Polyphonic secular pieces, such as chansons and madrigals, could be performed in different ways, for instance by a solo voice and one or several instruments, which took care of the remaining parts. Such a practice is demonstrated on the disc under review here, recorded by the ensemble Cantar alla Viola, whose name is its programme: performing music for voice and a 'viola', a generic term for a strung instrument that is able to play polyphonically.

Fernando Marín is a specialist in the 'bowed vihuela'; in 2017 he devoted his doctoral thesis to it and demonstrated its sound and application in a recording of that same year ("The Art of the Vihuela de Arco"). New Grove does not make any difference between the vihuela de arco and the fiddle. Marín believes that this term refers to a specific form. He emphasizes that the vihuela de arco "was conceived in an era in which the sound of vocal polyphony and the timbre of the human voice were the ideal model, well before the independent development of instrumental music". In the paragraph on 'Sources for the musical practice of the vihuela de arco' in the booklet to the disc mentioned above, he refers to Tinctoris, Ganassi and Diego Ortiz. Apparently he believes that the vihuela de arco could be one of the instruments which the sources refer to as 'viola', and that it was used in Italy, despite its Spanish origins. That is demonstrated on this particular disc, which offers a mixture of sacred and secular pieces from Spain, France, Germany and Italy.

The sacred part may raise some eyebrows. However, the performance of sacred pieces in instrumental adaptations was a common practice during the Renaissance. In 2003 Harmonia mundi released a disc with sacred works by Tomás Luis de Victoria in performances by the alto Carlos Mena, with Juan Carlos Rivera on lute and vihuela (the latter referring to a plucked instrument, used in Spain in the 16th century). The liner-notes mention at least two different sources which include sacred pieces for voice and a plucked instrument. Moreover, several Spanish composers transcribed sacred music, including complete masses, by the main composers of the time, especially the representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, such as Josquin Desprez. One of them was Luys de Narváez.

In the case of secular music, one can go back to the time of the troubadours and the trouvères, who usually accompanied themselves on an instrument. That could be a plucked instrument, such as a lute or a harp, but also a polyphonic instrument as the fiddle, which made its appearance in as early as the 11th century. A split between singer and 'accompanist' could only take place when music was going to be available in either a handwritten copy or in printed editions. All the music selected for this recording is taken from sources dating from before the time that music could be printed. Nadine Balbeisi, in her liner-notes, writes that "[all] the pieces included in this recording have been carefully arranged by Fernando Marín for the above mentioned exquisite musical practice of one voice accompanied with a bowed vihuela, while respecting their musical essence and compositional polyphonic balance, and ultimately seeking the original sound". I would have liked some more specific information about the nature of these 'arrangements'. What needed to be adapted, and in what way?

Obviously, Spanish music takes a major place in the programme. It is especially nice that we get a number of pieces by Francisco de Peñalosa, who is one of the lesser-known masters of the Spanish Renaissance. The two items by Gilles Binchois are used to document the influence of French music across Europe. One could argue that the performances are a little uniform in that there is relatively little differentiation in tempo. To what extent that is justified by the content of the songs is impossible to check, as the booklet omits the lyrics, which is a real shame.

It does in no way compromise my appreciation of the performances. Nadine Balbeisi has a very fine voice, and Marín is an engaging player who knows the possibilities of his instruments and the requirements of the repertoire inside out. This is a most interesting and musically compelling recording, which also includes quite some little-known pieces. It is to be hoped that this way of performing renaissance polyphony will be copied and practised more often.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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