musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Festival Early Music Utrecht 2008

Part One   Part Two

Part One

"La gracia y los bellos ojos" Folengo/Aníbal Soriano
30 August, Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh

Polychoral music from the Canarian Islands
Odhecaton/Paolo Da Col
30 August, St Augustinuskerk

Michael Praetorius
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
30 August, Jacobikerk

Morales: Lamentations and Magnificats
Ensemble Plus Ultra/Michael Noone
30 August, Pieterskerk

"A Spanish Tune: music in the Spanish regions"
1 September, Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh

"Secretos muy eçelentes" More Hispano/Vicente Parrilla
1 September, Geertekerk

Cancionero de Palacio
Capella de Ministrers/Carles Magraner
1 September, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn

"Iberia Resplendens"
Piffaro/Joan Kimball, Robert Wiemken
2 September, St Willibrordkerk

"Music of exile and reconciliation"
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
2 September, St Augustinuskerk

"The Golden Era in Seville" Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
2 September, Jacobikerk

Vásquez: "Sonetos y villancicos"
La Trulla de Bozes/Carlos Sandúa
2 September, Pieterskerk

Spanish music of the 16th and 17th centuries enjoys increasing popularity, considering the growing number of CDs devoted to Spanish repertoire. But there is still much to be discovered, and it is certainly interesting to give an overview of what these two centuries which were a 'golden era' in Spanish cultural history have to offer. It was therefore a splendid idea of the Festival Early Music in Utrecht to make these two Siglos de Oro the main theme of the edition of 2008. It is a fortunate development that many of the concerts in the festival are given by Spanish ensembles, signifying Spain's growing awareness of and interest in its musical history.

Before reporting about the concerts with Spanish music I would like to pay attention to a concert which had nothing to do with the festival's theme, but was an important event in itself. Paul Van Nevel, with his Huelgas Ensemble, gave a concert devoted to the sacred music of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), rightly labelled a key figure in the transition from the renaissance to the baroque era. His huge oeuvre which consists mainly of sacred music on German texts - mostly based on the chorales which were written in the wake of Martin Luther's reform of church music - shows elements of the styles of renaissance and baroque and of Italian and German idioms. The scoring goes from simple chorale settings to large polychoral works, which are no less impressive than the cori spezzati compositions written in Venice. A specifically interesting aspect of Praetorius' music is the use of a wide range of instruments. In his treatise Syntagma Musicum Praetorius describes in an encyclopedic way the then common instruments. From this perspective it was certainly right that Paul Van Nevel used a large number of various instruments in his interpretation of a small selection of Praetorius' impressive output.
It is very common nowadays to use cornets and trombones, recorders and dulcians. But many instruments were built in choirs of several pitches, like the dulcian: during this performance treble, descant, tenor and bass dulcian were used. Likewise crumhorns are rarely used in music of around 1600, but these certainly were still in use in Praetorius' days. The only point of criticism in this respect could probably be that sometimes too many different instruments were used within a single piece, which can lead to a lack of coherence. As Praetorius' music is still largely unknown it is difficult to say for a listener what Praetorius has exactly written down and what has been added by the performers. In the programme notes it was said that many ornaments are written down by the composer, but I wondered whether some of these were really meant to be sung or rather be played by instruments. But having said that I am very grateful for this impressive display of Praetorius' brilliance as a composer and the high quality of the performances by all participants. It was a most enjoyable experience, and one can only hope Praetorius' oeuvre will be profoundly explored.

Also a pretty large line-up was presented by the Capella de Ministrers; its concert was also a special event for the Friends of the Festival. Although this ensemble is active since 1987 it isn't very well-known, despite its impressive number of recordings. Only in the last months I heard several of the older recordings which didn't impress me that much. But I am happy to say that this time the ensemble made a very good impression. This was partly due to the singers some of whom are also known from other ensembles and as soloists, like the tenor Josep Benet and the baritone Jordi Ricart. The main roles were for the soprano Pilar Esteban and the alto José Hernández Pastor. The soprano's performances were somewhat unbalanced, sometimes impressive, but a bit insecure. At some occasions her singing was spoilt by too much vibrato. She had a nice stage presence, though, and that was even more the case with José Hernández Pastor. I hadn't heard about him, but I would be surprised if he wouldn't make a good career. He has a very beautiful voice, and sang with great expression and often moving subtlety. The instrumentalists played with verve and great enthusiasm, and as an ensemble the Capella de Ministrers made the most of the repertoire: songs from the Cancionero de Palacio, the most important collection of secular songs dating from around 1500. The wide variety of musical styles and subjects makes this a very captivating collection, reflecting the musical landscape of the time. The items were connected by a kind of improvisations on the psaltery, probably to bring a sort of unity in the programme - or to prevent the audience applauding after every single item. This makes some sense, but on the other hand I found it a little forced and unnatural. But as a whole this was a fine concert, which opened with one of the best-known Spanish songs, Juan del Encina's Triste España sin ventura, a deeply moving piece, and - together with some other lamento-like songs - was a highlight in the programme.

These songs can also be performed with much smaller line-up as the concert by the ensemble Folengo demonstrated. The anonymous Rodrigo Martínez, for instance, was performed here with soprano, viola da gamba, guitar and percussion only. Alongside secular songs semi-religious and instrumental pieces were performed. The musicians showed their technical skills and musicality, but as a whole the concert was a bit disapppointing. The soprano Sara Rosique has a nice voice and sang well, but her continuous vibrato wasn't very nice at all. In addition her expression was limited, and whereas the Capella de Mininstrers made the most of the repertoire they performed, Folengo did not. There was an improvisatory element in their performances, and that is something to note with satisfaction. There is always the danger of going overboard, and that was the case with the long solo by Álvaro Garrido towards the end, who showed the whole range of his percussion instruments. In my view this didn't make much sense and tended toward displaying his own qualities for their own sake.
He also is a member of the ensemble More Hispano, which devoted itself specifically to improvisation. And again, towards the end of the programme, Álvaro Garrido took - or was given - the opportunity to show his instruments and his considerable skils, and again I found it a bit overdone. Otherwise the concert was very good: composers like Antonio de Cabezón, Diego Ortiz and Enriquez de Valderrábano all wrote variations, and these were the starting point for the ensemble to add variations of itself. The skills of the instrumentalists was impressive, and the combination of written-out music and added improvisation resulted in a captivating performance. I should mention with honour the contributions of the soprano Raquel Andueza, who has a very fine voice which she used with flair and imagination.

Whereas the secular music from the Cancionero de Palacio dates from around 1500, the secular songs by the Spanish priest Juan Vásquez were published about half a century later, in 1551; some of them were reprinted and/or arranged in a later publication of 1560. These sonetos y villancicos could probably be compared to the Italian madrigals of the renaissance: most are in four parts, and in the performance by the ensemble La Trulla de Bozes the singers were supported by a vihuela and an organ. These pieces were very popular in the 16th century, partly because of their clarity and the relative simplicity of the counterpoint. The ensemble gave a fine account of these compositions, although I had liked a bit more variety in tempo and dynamics - it was a bit too much of the same. I also think sometimes the performance was a little too restrained and introverted. But that doesn't take anything away from the quality of this concert and this ensemble, with four splendid voices, which blended extremely well.

Three young musicians of considerable skills are Erik Bosgraaf (recorder), Izhar Elias (guitar) and Alessandro Pianu (harpsichord, organ), together the ensemble Cordevento. They presented music by Spanish composers abroad - in particular in Italy - and music by non-Spanish composers which in one way or another were connected to Spanish music. Among them were Spanish subjects, like the Folía, or pieces rightfully or wrongly referring to Spain, like Sweelinck's Pavana Hispanica. The programme ranged from solo pieces for either of the instruments to pieces played with the ensemble. We heard first-class performances of three musicians who are their equals in technical capabilities and sheer musicality. In addition the programme was very well put together, guaranteeing a maximum of variety and a strong coherence at the same time.

The probably most frequently performed music of the Spanish golden era is religious: masses, motets and lamentations. The ensemble Plus Ultra, directed by Michael Noone, performed four Lamentations and two Magnificats by Cristóbal de Morales, one of the greatest composers of the Spanish renaissance, but not that often performed, in particular in comparison to Tomás Luis de Victoria. The most interesting part of the concert were the four Lamentations, the performance of which is the result of a reconstruction. This is made necessary as none of Morales' settings of the Lamentations of Jeremia has been printed during his lifetime, and in later prints his music is distorted, often beyond recognition. The performances showed the great quality of these settings, and the two Magnificat-settings were equally impressive. The ensemble sang this repertoire very beautifully, but a bit too clean. The sound and approach are typically British, and as a result I missed the emotion which is an unequivocal part of any setting of the Lamentations. I also could well imagine the use of wind instruments playing colla parte, like the cornett or the bajón, frequently used in Spanish cathedrals.

Maybe an ensemble from Spain or Italy could have made more of this music by Morales. Such an ensemble could be Odhecaton, which under the direction of Paolo Da Col presented completely unknown repertoire from the cathedral of Las Palmas on the Canarian Islands. Here four composers acting as choirmaster (Manuel de Tavares, Juan de Figueredo, Francisco Redondo, Miguel de Yoldi) wrote polychoral music which was sung here by a soprano, four altos, two tenors, a baritone and two basses, together with a cornet, a dulcian and an organ. The music is written in the style of the prima prattica, but there are some nice elements of text expression and even some influences of the Italian expressive style of the early baroque, in particular in the music of Juan de Figueredo. That is especially the case in his 5-part setting of the Salve Regina, a kind of dialogue between the top voice and the four lower voices. I was very impressed by the quality of this repertoire and very much hope this is going to be explored even more in the future. Odhecaton's performances were ideal: a very fine and coherent ensemble sound, both with and without the additional instruments. In the solo passages the singers showed their qualities as well, in particular the soprano Laura Antonaz, whose singing - for instance in De Figueredo's Salve Regina - was very expressive. Odhecaton is definitely an ensemble to look out for.

Ironically it was a British ensemble which showed how the polyphony of the renaissance can be performed with a different, more emotional approach. The Brabant Ensemble, directed by Stephen Rice, presented a programme under the title 'Music of exile and reconciliation'. There was a historical reason to do so: 450 years ago both Emperor Charles V and the English Queen Mary Tudor died, both confirmed Catholics and staunch opponents of the Reformation. The programme concentrated on music by composers who were closely associated with Charles V: Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Crecquillon and Manchicourt. The connection to the festival's main theme was the fact that Charles' empire included Spain, and two of its most prominent composers, Cristóbal de Morales and Francisco Guerrero, were also represented in the programme. The ensemble's performances were very different from those of the ensemble Plus Ultra. Features of their approach are a far wider dynamic range, more variety in tempo and a generally stronger and more powerful sound. To give one example: the line "Si filius Dei es, dic ut lapides isti panes fiant" (from Guerrero's motet Ductus est Iesus, about Jesus tempted in the desert by the devil) was sung in a very dramatic fashion, reflecting the diabolical character of these words. This may be suitable to the music by Guerrero, which is pretty emotional in character anyway, but it also worked well elsewhere, for instance in Clemens non Papa's motet Carole, magnus eras. And in one of Morales' settings of the Lamentations The Brabant Ensemble was able to bring more emotion into their interpretation than Plus Ultra had done.

Whereas the performances by the ensemble Odhecaton included the use of a cornett, a dulcian and an organ in its interpretation of polychoral music from the Canarian Islands, the French ensemble Doulce Mémoire presented music from Spanish cathedrals with a whole battery of wind instruments. This way they paid tribute to a widespread practice in Spain: many cathedrals used wind instruments, not only to support or replace voices, but also for the performance of instrumental music during services. All sacred music was written by Francisco Guerrero, among it some well-known pieces like Ave virgo sanctissima. The sound of in particular a choir of dulcians is quite spectacular in itself, but its use in Guerrero's motets, playing either colla parte or replacing voices, even enhanced the emotional impact of Guerrero's music. In addition cornetts, shawms and a trombone were used. The level of playing was impressive, and so was the singing of the two sopranos, three tenors and two basses of the ensemble. This concert was in fact quite spectacular and gave a very convincing impression of how music in Spanish cathedrals of the 16th century must have sounded.

Independent instrumental music as well as instrumental versions of vocal music to be played in church can be found in several manuscripts, for instance in the church of San Pedro in Lerma. The American ensemble Piffaro had put together a programme of such music, performed with cornett, trombone, recorders, shawms, dulcian and bagpipes, and in addition lute, guitar and percussion. The members of the ensemble are skilled players of a whole range of instruments, and play them with zest and imagination. The whole programme was a sheer delight, not only because of the quality of the music, but also thanks to the way it was presented. These players are really performers who know how to captivate their audience - thankfully not by putting themselves above the music. This kind of repertoire couldn't be better served and the instruments couldn't be better displayed than by Piffaro. Hopefully we will see them again in a next edition of the festival.

Part Two

"Para tecla, arpa y vihuela" (2)
Marie Nishiyama, harpsichord, virginals
1 September, Lutheran Church

"Para tecla, arpa y vihuela" (3)
Liuwe Tamminga, organ
2 September, Lutheran Church

"Un viaje altera"
La Caccia
3 September, Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh

"Para tecla, arpa y vihuela" (4)
Diego Ares, harpsichord, virginals
3 September, Lutheran Church

Victoria: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae
La Colombina
3 September, Jacobikerk

"Music from Oaxaca Cathedral"
Ensemble Elyma/Gabriel Garrido
3 September, St Augustinuskerk

Guerrero: Missa Saeculorum Amen La Híspanoflamenca/Bart Vandewege

Anchieta: Missa de Nostra Dona
Capilla Peñaflorida, Ministriles de Marsías/Josep Cabré
4 September, Pieterskerk

Morales: Missa pro defunctis
Capilla Flamenca/Dirk Snellings, Psallentes/Hendrk Vanden Abeele, Piffaro/Joan Kimball, Robert Wiemken
4 September, Domkerk (Cathedral)

"Fatigada navecilla"
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
4 September, Jacobikerk

"Para tecla, arpa y vihuela" (6)
Hannelore De Vaere, harp
5 September, Vredenburgh Leeuwenbergh

"Para tecla, arpa y vihuela" (7)
Claudio Astronio, harpsichord, organ
5 September, Lutheran Church

"Orphénica lyra: music by Miguel de Fuenllana"
Ishbilya Consort/Fahmi Alqhai
5 September, Geertekerk

"¡Triste España sin ventura!"
Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre
5 September, Muziekcentrum Leidsche Rijn

"The musicians of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad"
graindelavoix/Björn Schmelzer
5 September, Pieterskerk

"Paraíos Perdidos: Columbus and his time"
Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya/Jordi Savall

The Spanish composers of the 16th and 17th centuries may be relatively little known, there is at least one exception: Tomás Luis de Victoria. There are quite a number of recordings with his music available, and his name also appears on the programmes of vocal ensembles. One concert during the festival was completely devoted to his music: La Colombina sang extracts from the Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, which was published in Rome in 1585. From this collection of 37 polyphonic pieces for Holy Week the ensemble had selected nine pieces for Thursday and Friday. Considering the quality of this music it is a shame no complete recording is available. (I know of one rather obscure recording which - as far as I know - is not available anymore, and was musically rather unsatisfying.) If there is going to be a complete recording I very much would like it to be produced by La Colombina. In its present line-up of Raquel Andueza (soprano), José Hernandez Pastor (alto), Josep Benet (tenor) and Josep Cabré (baritone) it is the ideal combination of voices to do this splendid music justice. The precision in blending, articulation and intonation is most impressive, and - what is more - the intimate and devotional character of Victoria's music was convincingly explored. It was one of the highlights of the festival.

One kind of performance practice - the use of instruments to play colla parte with voices or to replace them - was applied in two concerts in the second part of the week. Very impressive was the performance of the Missa pro defunctis by Cristóbal de Morales by the ensembles Capilla Flamenca, Psallentes and Piffaro. It was presented as "a (fragmentary) votive office for Emperor Charles V with the specific liturgical chants from the Officium and the Missa pro defunctis as foundation". The large space of the Cathedral was used to great effect, as several elements of the office were performed at different spaces. The largest part was performed with the Capilla Flamenca and Piffaro at one end and Psallentes, singing the plainchant, at the other end of the church. The acoustics were most appropriate to make this music blossom and achieve its full impact showing the splendour of Spanish liturgical music of the 16th century. Neither a live recording nor a CD recording can ever really pick up the atmosphere of this performance, so everyone who was there was really lucky to have been the witness of a unique event. That is what a festival like this is about.

On a much smaller scale and in the smaller but very suitable medieval Pieterskerk the ensembles Capilla Peñaflorida and Ministriles de Marsías applied the same performance practice in a mass by Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523). Although he is not a totally unknown quantity, his music is hardly known. That is a great shame as it is of excellent quality as the performance by the ensembles, directed by Josep Cabré, showed. This mass is a rare piece as it not only contains polyphonic settings of the ordinary, but also of the propers of the mass. On the other hand the Credo has been left out. In addition the only four pieces on a Spanish text by De Anchieta were performed in between the sections of the mass, some of them instrumentally. De Anchieta's music recieved a very fine performance by singers and instrumentalists alike, among them some who have been extremely busy during this festival, like the alto José Hernández Pastor and the tenor Josep Benet, and, of course, Josep Cabré, who also sang the solos in the plainchant. This ensemble has an unmistakeble Spanish flavour which has a positive effect on the way the music was communicated.

This doesn't mean, though, that only Spanish ensembles can convincingly deliver the expressive content of Spanish sacred music. Apart from the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, whose concert I have written about in the first part of this review, the ensemble La Híspanoflamenca, directed by Bart Vandewege, gave a splendid account of another mass setting, this time the Missa Saeculorum Amen by Francisco Guerrero, one of the big names of the Spanish renaissance. The cantus firmus of this mass is the "saeculorum amen" from the plainchant doxology. In between the sections of the mass six motets were performed in pairs by different composers: Ecce ascendimus Hierosolimam by Guerrero and Alonso Lobo, Duo seraphim by De Victoria and Juan Esquivel, and Urbs beata Jerusalem by De Victoria and De Morales. The combination of Belgian (Flemish) and Spanish singers, reflected by the name of the ensemble, works very well as not only this concert but also previous CD recordings by the ensemble show. No instruments were used, but the singers were able to communicate the expressive power of the music on the programme very well.

The Belgian ensemble graindelavoix is a rare phenomenon in the world of early music. It doesn't look for voices which naturally blend, but its leader, Björn Schmelzer, brings together singers from different backgrounds and from different traditions. This leads to a sound which reminds me of how ensembles for medieval music used to sing Spanish music in the 1960's and 1970's: a sharp, unpolished, sometimes nasal sound, often very powerful. Personally I am not convinced that this approach has any historical foundation, and I wonder if this will be more than just a passing thing. Whether this approach is going to have any influence remains to be seen. The concert was devoted to musicians of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad, among them Pierre de la Rue, Alexander Agricola and the little-known Nicolas Champion. Apart from making a bit of a mess of the programme as it was announced on the programme sheet - even more complicated by the fact that the lyrics were hardly audible - the performance was technically very good, but not really captivating. I have to confess I got a bit bored after a while. And there was not a moment I found the music really moving like in concerts by other ensembles performing sacred music.

In comparison the second concert by the Huelgas Ensemble, directed by Paul Van Nevel, was a wholly different affair. It presented an interesting journey through the 16th and early 17th century in music by mostly hardly-known composers like Bernardino de Ribera, Manuel Machado, Pedro de Pastrana and Matteo Romero. Apart from motets some villancicos were performed, which were excellently sung, but I found their performance by an ensemble of this size - up to 14 voices - less satisfying. The sound of the ensemble is always brilliant, and there was a much better delivery of the text than in the performances by grandelavoix. In the latest pieces, by Romero and Lésbio, the baroque style has left its mark, and if there is anything which I missed in this festival it is the music of the later 17th century. Certainly Romero deserves wider attention, just like Joan Cererols. Hopefully this period in Spanish music history will be part of another edition of the festival.

Since some years the music from archives in Latin America is explored, and this has led to most intriguing concerts and recordings. One of the pioneers in this field is Gabriel Garrido, who with his Ensemble Elyma, has made a number of recordings with music found in this part of the world. He presented music from Oaxaca Cathedral in Mexico, which contains about 300 pieces in different genres then popular in Spain, and also in Latin America. The music is collected in the so-called Cancionero musical de Gaspar Fernandes. Fernandes (1570-1629) was born in Portugal and worked as maestro de capilla in Guatemala since 1602, and in 1606 he went to Puebla de los Angeles in Mexico. Here he put all his works together; this collection was then taken to Oaxaca by a pupil. The pieces performed by the Ensemble Elyma were mostly sacred in character, but very different from what one would expect. There is hardly any difference in character between this music and the secular music of the time as Fernandes' own specimen in this genre - also performed in the concert - testify. Some pieces are on a Spanish text, some in Indian languages or on a mixture of local languages and corrupted Spanish. I am not sure if I were going to listen to this kind of music often if it had been recorded on CD, but in this concert it worked very well, in particular as it was performed with such exuberance and verve as by the Ensemble Elyma. I think one probably has to be there to fully appreciate such repertoire and to experience its sometimes electrifying effect. It was definitely an aspect of the Spanish musical culture which couldn't be missed from this festival.

An important aspect of Spanish musical culture of the 16th and 17th centuries was music for keyboard, vihuela and harp. Often this repertoire is interchangeable, which is reflected by the title of some collections of music, like the Obras de Música para Tecla, Arpa y Vihuela of 1578 by Antonio de Cabezón. Therefore the formula "para tecla, arpa y vihuela" was also the title of a series of concerts on keyboard instruments, vihuela and harp. I could only attend some concerts in the series, which gave a very interesting and varying picture of the Spanish repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Japanese Marie Nishiyama played her programme on three different instruments: virginals, harpsichord and harp. In doing so she showed how close these instruments are and how well the music which was probably first intended to be played on the vihuela can be performed on either the keyboard or the harp (for instance Fantasía X by Luys de Milan). She played with a very clear articulation, something I missed a bit in the recital by Diego Ares, whose performances were sometimes too much concentrating on technical brilliance. I also think he could have used the virginals more often, for instance in Byrd's The Bells, one of the English pieces he played in addition to his programme which was mainly devoted to Antonio de Cabezón. Claudio Astronio's recital was then exclusively consisting of music by De Cabezón, which he played on harpsichord and organ. His approach was much different from Ares', as he played mostly in a more moderate tempo, and meticulously articulated, which in my view made his performances much more rhetorical than Ares'. Only the choice of instruments was sometimes a bit surprising, playing some pieces on the organ where perhaps the harpsichord may have been a more logical choice. Liuwe Tamminga, one of the organists of the San Petronio in Bologna, devoted his recital to one of the genres of keyboard music, the canarios. He used four different organs, among them a regal, in music by anonymous composers as well as Spanish masters like De Ribayaz, De Tavares and Nebra. In addition non-Spanish music was performed, like by Lully and Purcell. Some pieces in the programme had a little less substance than the repertoire in the other recitals in this series, but it was an interesting concert and Liuwe Tamminga played very well. In her recital the Belgian harpist Hannelore De Vaere played some music originally conceived for the organ. In particular for these compositions she used a triple harp, whereas other pieces were played on a smaller and more intimate instrument. There are not that many recordings with a harp as solo instrument, so this was a most welcome opportunity to hear the instrument in this capacity, and Hannelore De Vaere is a leading expert on the renaissance and baroque repertoire for her instrument which she demonstrated with her fine performances.

The Belgian ensemble La Caccia presented a programme around Juan del Encina, one of the most prominent composers of the Spanish renaissance. The starting point was Del Encina's journey to Jerusalem in 1519 and his travel account. The programme not only contained Spanish music, by Del Encina and anonymous composers, but also Turkish music. I'm not a big fan of this kind of music, and I really can't tell if the performance by La Caccia did this repertoire any justice. But I assume at least the singer, Melike Tarhan, Turkish by birth, knows what she is doing. She also sang the Spanish music, but although she has been trained in classical (European) singing I found her performances of this repertoire unsatisfying. Often she wasn't quite able to sing the upper line properly, her intonation being just too low. The instrumental contributions in Eastern style - probably improvised - were too long and dragged on. I didn't enjoy it - I'm not saying it was bad; it's just not my cup of tea.

In the interpretation of early music there is always an element of speculation, as we will never know the full truth about how music was performed in the past. The main thing is whether speculative performances are done well, and whether there is any plausibility in what performers are doing. An example is the concert by the Ishbilya Consort, consisting of three viols and a violone. The concert presented music by Miguel de Fuenllana (fl 1553-1578), from his collection Orphénica lyra of 1554. Fuenllana was a famous player of the vihuela, and made numerous arrangements of vocal pieces for his instrument. The Ishbilya Consort decided to transcribe these pieces for viol consort, and also some of Fuenllana's tientos and fantasías. According to the programme notes it is far from certain that Fuenllana has ever heard performances of his music by a consort of viols, but that it is imagineable this kind of arrangements were made in the 16th century considering the importance of this kind of ensemble in Seville where Fuenllana lived and worked since 1554. It's a small basis for a performance, but there is nothing wrong with a kind of speculation for which historical arguments can be used. The performances weren't bad, but not really convincing, partly because of some technical deficiencies, in particular in regard to intonation and the synchronisation between the players. I would rather like to hear the original vihuela intabulations by Fuenllana than these arrangements of arrangements.

The French ensemble Le Poème Harmonique was a probably surprising contibutor to this year's festival as it mainly concentrates on French and Italian music of the 17th century. Their programme started with Juan del Encina (1468-1530) and ended with La gran chacona by Luis de Briçeno (early 17th century). The latest music was in the middle: instrumental pieces by Diego Fernández de Huete, who died in 1713. There was much overlap with the programme of the Capella de Ministrers, and it was interesting to hear the differences in the performance. The line-up of Le Poème Harmonique was modest in comparison to Capella de Ministrers', and the approach more introverted, in line with the style of this ensemble. But apparently the repertoire can be approached from different angles, as Le Poème Harmonique's performances worked well and were just as effective. Claire Lefilliâtre was the star of the singers and is difficult to surpass. The other singers were competent but not of the same class. The instrumentalists gave very fine performances, in particular the three viol players.

The last concert I attended was given by La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI, directed by Jordi Savall. Their programme was entitled: "Paraísos perdidos 1400-1506", translated: "paradise lost". This concerns the fate of the Jews and the Moors, who were either removed from the kingdom or forced to convert to Christianity. At the same time the programme followed the life of Christopher Columbus, who discovered America, which led to the destruction of Indian cultures and at the same time the creation of a new melting pot of cultural traditions. Jordi Savall's programmes are more than just music; this concert was an example as he described the living together of three different cultures in Spain as a "paradise". This seems to me rather far off the mark, just like calling the creation of a new melting pot in America as another "paradise". It is better to take his views with a grain of salt and concentrate on the music instead. It was a sequence of texts and music from the three traditions, performed with technical brilliance and strong commitment of all participants. It was a bit strange, though, that a programme with such serious content ended with a piece like A la vida bona by Juan Arañes. Equally strange that the whole piece was performed, except the penultimate where an "African", a "negro" and a "gypsy" appear - a matter of political correctness? Whatever, it didn't spoil my appreciation for the performances by these two ensembles. It is true that Jordi Savall's interpretations are probably more reflecting his own preferences than what is historically justified. But there can be no doubt about his passion for what he believes in. As one of the founding fathers of the rediscovery of Spain's musical heritage his efforts can't be enough appreciated.

It is time to sum up my impressions. In my opinion this festival has been a great success. The choice of Spain's Golden Era as its main theme was spot on: the concerts showed there is much to discover and many aspects of Spain's musical past are still hardly known. There was enough variety within this theme to find something of one's liking for everyone. And this festival was a great opportunity for Spanish ensembles to present themselves at a stage of international importance. Hopefully this will help them to establish themselves and give them more opportunities to explore their musical heritage.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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