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Urbán DE VARGAS (1606 - 1656): "Quicumque"

Capilla Peñaflorida; Ministriles de Marsias
Dir: Josep Cabré

rec: May 18 - 21, 2007, Azkoitia, Convento de Santa Cruz
nbmusika - NB010 (© 2007) (68'58")

plainchant: Pater manifestavi nomen tuum (In ascensione Domini); Urbán DE VARGAS: Al sagrario que copia del bosque, villancico al Santisimo a 4; Hoy el esposo divino, villancico al Santisimo, para Siesta a 4; Magnificat de 6° tono a 8; Misa de la Batalla a 4; Salve Regina a 6 y arpa 'Para el rey'; Simbolo de San Atanasio 'Quicumque vult salvus esse' a 11; Viva el bizarría, villancico al Nacimiento a 4

The Spanish music of the 17th century, written after the Golden Age had come to an end, is still hardly explored. In recent years several Spanish musicians and ensembles are delving into the large repertoire of that period. Several unknown composers have come the fore in the process, like Urbán de Vargas, whose music has been recorded by the Capilla Peñaflorida and Ministriles de Marsias under the direction of Josep Cabré. These ensembles are mostly performing 16th-century repertoire. Only recently I reviewed their disc with music by Juan de Anchieta.

The very fact that De Vargas is hardly known proves how underexplored the Spanish music of the 17th century is, as - according to Antonio Ezquerro Esteban in his programme notes - he was one of the most distinguished composers of his time. He worked at several cathedrals as maestro de capilla, for instance in Pamplona, Daroca, Zaragoza and lastly at Valencia, where he died. He also acted as teacher, and it is possible that Juan Cabanilles, one of Spain's most famous composers of organ music, was one of his pupils.

De Vargas' oeuvre varies from pieces for solo voice and basso continuo to large-scale works for 16 voices divided over five choirs. These include villancicos, both secular and sacred, as well as liturgical works. This disc includes specimen of both. Three villancicos are performed, one written for Christmastide, the other two for the Holy Sacrament. The former is performed instrumentally. These are written in a more popular and therefore simpler style, which also explains that they are for just four voices. What exactly they are about I can't tell as the booklet doesn't give any translations of the lyrics.

The Misa de la Batalla is also for four voices. It contains polyphonic and homophonic passages. Notable is that Kyrie and Agnus Dei are the only alternatim sections of this mass. It is performed here with instruments playing colla parte. Whether there are any specific references in the score is not told in the programme notes, but it is suggested that De Vargas wanted instruments like shawms, sackbuts, cornetts, dulcians as well as plucked and keyboard instruments to participate.

Interesting is the setting of the Athanasian Creed, Quicumque vult salvus esse, which gave the disc its title. This piece takes more than 20 minutes which is not surprising as the text of this creed is quite long. Like I wrote the booklet contains no translations of the lyrics, so one has to look for an English translation on the internet (for instance at Wikipedia). It probably dates from the 5th century and has been accepted as one of the Creeds in most Christian churches of the West. Because of its specific character and its length it is hardly used, though. De Vargas's setting dates from 1651, and according to the programme notes it is the only known complete polyphonic setting of the text. I can't confirm that, but according to the entry 'Credo' in New Grove the Athanasian Creed is said, not sung, at Prime. This could explain that I haven't ever heard this text in a musical setting, as far as I can remember.

As the focus of this Creed is on the Trinity, it is no surprise that this work was commissioned by Zaragoza Cathedral to be performed at the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The scoring is symbolic, as De Vargas himself explained. The 11 voices represent the Apostles minus Judas the traitor, and the ensemble is divided into three choirs, symbolising the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. This opens possibilities to point out elements in the text. In particular the words which are repeated several times are given to the full ensemble, like "talis", "immensus" and "aeternus". Through the juxtaposition of the choirs and of passages for the full ensemble and reduced forces De Vargas creates strong contrasts within this setting.

In addition we hear compositions on two of the most important liturgical texts, the Magnificat and the Salve Regina. The setting of the Magnificat is for eight voices in two choirs. The two upper voices have several solo passages in which the second mostly imitates the first. Although strictly speaking not an alternatim composition, the verse 'Fecit potentiam' is sung in plainchant.

The Salve Regina is for six voices, and the tracklist adds "y arpa". As this part seems to be independent of the voices it is probably written out by Urbán de Vargas. As usual the plainchant melody of the 'Salve Regina' is intertwined with the polyphony.

This is a very interesting disc which explores a composer whose music I had never heard before. The music is such that I certainly hope to hear more from him in the future. I wouldn't mind if future recordings would explore De Vargas' music to more depth. I am not saying these are bad performances. The singers are good - although I noticed a slight vibrato in the upper voices now and then - and the instrumentalists are impressive, but there is a lack of contrast, in particular in dynamics. The interpretation could have been more captivating if the Affekt of the various compositions had been more thoroughly explored.

The Mass comes of best and the Magnificat and Salve Regina are rather well performed. Most unsatisfying are the two villancicos which are sung. Even though I can't understand what they are about I have heard this kind of music in more exciting performances.

The booklet contains lenghty notes about the composer and his world. That makes it even harder to understand that no translations of the lyrics are given.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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