musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Cristóbal GALAN (c1620/25 - 1684): "Fire and Ice - Villancicos y Tonos a Sólo, Dúo y Trio"

Maria Luz Alvarez, Olga Pitarch Mampel, soprano; Cesar Carazo Jalon, tenor
Accentus Austria
Dir: Thomas Wimmer

rec: Nov 15 - 17, 2009, Vienna, Hofburgkapelle
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88765445182 (© 2013) (56'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/S; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Atención al retrato de Filis, solo humano; Ay, ay, cruel delito, a Christo Cruçificado; Fuentecillas lisonjeras, Dúo; Humano ardor, al Santisimo/Duo con ynstrumentos; Mariposa no corras al fuego, tonada solo al Santísimo Sacramento; O qué mal vamos Amor, villancico a 4 de ynstrumentos; Pajarillo que al alba saludas, Solo y a 4; Pajarillo que cantas ausente, tono humano; Pintar quiero una imagen, duo para un velo; Que ha de tener llegaré, duo al Santísimo Sacramento; Vuele, vuele feliz mariposa, villancico al Santísimo Sacramento; Ya los caballos de jazmín y rosa, tonada humana

Michael Posch, recorder; Ulli Engel, Elisabeth Wiesbauer, violin; Jorge Daniel Valencia, viola da gamba; Thomas Wimmer, violone; Giovanna Pessi, harp; Pierre Pitzl, guitar; Norbert Zeilberger, organ

In recent years various discs with Spanish music of the 17th century have crossed my path. After a long time of neglect it seems that musicians and ensembles have discovered the richness of the repertoire from this period in Spanish history. The 16th century may be characterised as el siglo d'oro - and rightly so -, but there is no reason to ignore what was written in the following two centuries. Many discs devoted to this repertoire include music by composers which are hardly known. One of them is Cristóbal Galan who composed a considerable amount of music in various genres. The present disc is not the first which is entirely devoted to his oeuvre. Some years ago La Grande Chapelle, directed by Albert Recasens, recorded sacred works on Latin texts, and villancicos and tonos humanos in the vernacular. By good fortune only a couple of pieces from that production are again recorded by Accentus Austria. This means that with this new disc the number of compositions by Galán which are available on disc, is considerably extended.

Galán was born somewhere between 1620 and 1625 in Madrid; little is known about his formative years. His first important post was that of maestro de capilla at Cagliari (Sardinia). After that he worked in the same capacity in various churches. In 1667 he was appointed as director of music at the convent of the Descalzas Reales. In 1680 he became director of music at the royal chapel, a position which was not without problems.

This disc includes specimens of two genres of vocal music: the villancico and the tono humano. Broadly speaking the difference between the two genres is that the former has a sacred content, whereas the latter is secular. That is more or less correct from the late 16th century onward. Originally the villancico was a secular piece in the vernacular, and it was in the second half of the 16th century that sacred subjects began to prevail. The tono humano is of a much later date and came into existence around the middle of the 17th century. Such pieces were mostly scored for solo voice and basso continuo, whereas the villancico could be for up to eight parts. Stylistically the two genres have much in common as this disc shows, and even the texts are often very much alike.

In his liner-notes Thomas Wimmer tries to explain the similarity between sacred and secular texts with a reference to the concept of the unio mystica, the ideal of the unification of the human soul with God. This could even assume an erotic shape, which comes to the fore, for instance, in the interpretation of the Song of Songs. This is certainly an interesting explanation, and there could be some truth in it. However, I am not sure that this is all there is to say about this subject. The Christian Church of the West, and since the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church, as always had an ambiguous attitude towards everything secular. On the one hand it was keen to make use of secular and even non-Christian traditions for the promotion of the Christian faith. I only have to refer here to Christmas. In the 17th century music was composed in Italy as part of the Counter Reformation which made use of compositional devices which were also used in contemporary opera. On the other hand, ecclesiastical authorities expressed their dismay at any secular influence on religious music. The very fact that music like the villancico was so widespread doesn't indicate that it was endorsed by the church. In practice it was hard to resist practices which were popular among the people.

Whatever the truth may be, the fact is that there is a large repertoire of villancicos. Among the most frequent subjects are Christmas and the Holy Sacrament (Santísimo Sacramento). The present selection also includes a piece about Christ's Passion: Ay, ay, cruel delito (Oh, oh, cruel crime). Most pieces have a strongly pronounced rhythm, which is often emphasized by a strumming guitar. That is common practice in recordings of villancicos. Here is also the difference between the interpretation of Accentus Austria and La Grande Chapelle. The latter doesn't even include a guitar, and as the tempi are also a little slower it is fair to say that the approach of these two ensembles is quite different. I don't dare to decide which is closer to the historical truth - provided there is something like 'truth' here - and I can appreciate both of them.

The singing and playing of Accentus Austria is outstanding. The three singers have nice voices and sing stylishly and with much passion. Olga Pitarch Mampel should have reduced her vibrato, though. As the interpretations by Accentus Austria and La Grande Chapelle are quite different and the programmes hardly overlap I consider these productions as complementary rather than competitive. It is great that with this new disc the oeuvre of Cristóbal Galán is put into the spotlight once again.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

CD Reviews