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"Hirviendo el mar - Spanish baroque vocal music"

Vandalia, Ars Atlántica

rec: Jan 25 - 27, 2017, Sevilla, Sputnik Studios
IBS Classical - IBS102018 (© 2018) (58'11")
Liner-notes: E/ES; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: En una concha de Venus; Florecitas, que al alba; Heridas en un rendido; Los ojos negros de Juana; No quiero más burlas, Juana; Qué festivo el arroyuelo; Manuel CORREA (c1600-1653): Hirviendo el mar de enemigos (attr); Huyendo baja un arroyo; Venid a ver una boda; Filipe DA CRUZ (c1603-c1668): No cantéis, dulce ruiseñor; Manuel MACHADO (c1590-1646): Solió a la fuente Jacinta

Rocío de Frutos, Verónica Plata, soprano; Gabriel Díaz, alto; Víctor Sordo, tenor; Javier Cuevas, bass; Manuel Vilas, harp

Between 2007 and 2017 Naxos released four discs by the ensemble Ars Atlántica, directed by the harpist Manuel Vilas, all devoted to a specific genre of Spanish vocal music of the 17th century, known as tonos humanos. All of them included songs for solo voice and basso continuo (so far three of them have been reviewed here: Vol. 1; Vol. 2; Vol. 3). On the present disc Vilas and the vocal ensemble Vandalia turn their attention to polyphonic tonos. The solo pieces are mostly from the second half of the century, whereas the pieces for three to four voices are mainly from its first half. One could see here a similarity with the development of the airs de cour in France. At the end of the 16th century such songs were polyphonic, whereas in the course of the 17th century most of them were scored for solo voice.

The repertoire performed on the Naxos discs was taken from an important manuscript, the Manuscrito Guerra, put together a round 1680. The recording under review here focuses on an earlier manuscript, called Libro de tonos humanos, preserved in the National Library of Spain, put together in 1655/56. It includes 222 pieces of both secular and sacred works. The former are called tonos humanos, the latter tonos a la divino. The programme recorded by Vandalia and Vilas includes only specimens of the former category.

The book was copied by fray Diego Pizarro, singer at the Carmen Calzado convent in Madrid. This indicates that these songs, some of which are of an erotic nature, were sung by the monks, "probably in the two hours of amusement they had each day" (booklet). In seems that some of the songs were copied by another hand, probably of someone connected to the court. From that one may conclude that such songs were performed among the higher echelons of society. However, some of the texts, written by the monks and nuns, and probably sometimes also by the composers themselves, can be connected to traditional songs. For this reason scholars have linked these songs to the popular culture of the time, "in other words, to cultural practices of human groups unconnected with the political and social elite, including countless guitarists and singers who made music by ear in the shops or in public spaces". Alejandro Vera, in his liner-notes, uses the image of a coin with two sides. This not only concerns the texts, but also the music, which "had the virtue of combining the elaborated polyphonic counterpoint with the 'sweetness' of the guitar and the 'popular music' (...)".

The songs have different forms but what they have in common is the division in coplas (stanzas) and estribillos (refrains). The way the latter are treated is different from one form to the other. The vocal parts were unsually performed by one singer per part; if sung in a male convent, the upper voices were performed by sopranists ('natural' male sopranos) or castratos. The accompaniment was for guitar or harp, two instruments able to play in chords.

An interesting and essential element of these tonos is the connection between text and music. Vera refers here to theorists of the time, who stated that good music had "to make what the lyrics demand, cheerful or sad, serious or light, far or near, humble or noble". The programme includes some striking examples, such as the harmony on the phrase "oh, let her weep and ache" (Manuel Machado, Salió a la fuente Jacinta). Another notable example is the depiction of musical harmony mentioned in No cantéis, dulce ruiseñor (Filipe da Cruz): "Sing not, sweet nightingale", which refers to "soft flats", "trilling syncopations", "major fifths" and "perfect fifth". It ends with a striking dissonance on the words "the final cadence of pain".

If you have the Naxos discs I mentioned, you will certainly be interested in this programme of polyphonic tonos. It completes the picture of this important and interesting genre. Vandalia already recorded a disc with pieces by the Spanish 16th-century composer Juan Vásquez (Brilliant Classics, 2016), which I haven't heard. The present disc shows that it is a very fine ensemble whose members have what it takes to bring this repertoire to life. The solo episodes are sung just as well as the tutti sections. There is a slight vibrato in the upper voices, which should have been avoided, but it has not spoiled my enjoyment of these performances. It is to be hoped that this recording (and the Naxos discs) shall contribute to a wider appreciation and more frequent performances of Spanish tonos humanos. The liner-notes are very helpful by putting them into their historical perspective, although the English translation should have been better.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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