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Concert reviews

"Spanish Peppers" - Music for recorder consort
Seldom Sene
concert: Feb 19, 2016, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

[in order of appearance] Antonio DE CABEZÓN (1510-1566): Inviolata. Jusquin; Susana; Triste de par.Gombert; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Inviolata, integra et casta est Maria; La Spagna (attr); Francisco DE LA TORRE (c1460-1504): [Danza] alta; Fabritio CAROSO (c1527-c1605): Amor mio; Francesco CANOVA da Milano (1497-1543): Bassadanza La Spagna; Francesco DE PEÑALOSA (c1470-1528): Adoro te, Domine; Francesco GUERRERO (1528-1599): Missa pro defunctis (Lux aeterna); Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): Ascendens Christus in altum; Alonso LOBO (1555-1617): Ave Regina coelorum; Philippe VERDELOT (c1480-c1532): Dormend'un giorno a baia; Antonio DE CABEZÓN: Dumendo un jorno. Verdelot; Francisco GUERRERO: Missa Dormendo un giorno (Agnus Dei); Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA: Ave Regina coelorum; Hernando DE CABEZÓN (1541-1602): Susana; Francisco GUERRERO: ¡Hombres, victoria, victoria!; anon: Piu, riu, chiu; Francisco GUERRERO: Trahe me post te

Stephanie Brandt, Ruth Dyson, Eva Gemeinhardt, Hester Groenleer, María Martínez Ayerza, recorder

Recently I have reviewed a couple of discs by consorts of recorders. Both of them played music of the English renaissance. That belongs to the core of the repertoire of such ensembles. The recorder quintet Seldom Sene presented a different programme in a series of concerts across the Netherlands. This tour was the direct result of the ensemble winning first prize in the International Van Wassenaer Competition in 2014. The programme was entitled "Spanish peppers" and included music by Spanish composers of the 16th century.

Before the baroque period very little music was specifically written for instrumental ensemble. The only exception was dance music. Ensembles of instruments were mostly used to support voices in sacred music - especially cornetts and sackbuts - or secular music. In the latter instruments such as viols and recorders could be used. Otherwise instrumentalists played vocal works, either as they were written down by the composer or adapted to the instruments which were available, or music for other instruments, such as keyboard and plucked instruments. Seldom Sene had put together an interesting and instructive programme in which the various categories were represented.

It opened the programme with three specimens of music for a single instrument. In 1578 Hernando de Cabezón published a collection of music by his father Antonio and some from his own pen which was intended for keyboard, harp or vihuela. A part of the pieces in this collection are arrangements of some of the most famous vocal works of the renaissance, for instance the chanson Susanne un jour by Orlandus Lassus. It was mostly the top line which was the subject of extended ornamentation. In this piece we heard the lower recorders whereas later an arrangement of the same chanson by Hernando was played on higher-pitched recorders. The lower instruments were also used for the chanson Triste départ in another arrangement by Antonio. That was most appropriate, considering the sad content of this piece. It was followed by a motet from the pen of Josquin Desprez, Inviolata, integra et casta es Maria. The figurations in this piece - typical for keyboard and plucked instruments - came off well here which is not obvious; in some cases a performance with different instruments may be less successful. It was interesting then to hear the original version by Josquin which showed how much Cabezón changed Josquin's composition. His arrangement results in a composition which can stand on its own.

A variety of instruments was brought into action in a series of dances of different character. These are often not fully written out: apart from some lines it is left to the performers to bring them to life, and the members of Seldom Sene did so with a great deal of verve and much imagination. In La Spagna, a bassadanza by Francesco da Milano, one of the members created a sound which was probably intended to imitate percussion. In this part of the programme the only 'non-authentic' instrument was used: the lowest possible recorder which looked like an organ pipe and was built in the 1970s, certainly not after renaissance models.

The first part ended with three sacred pieces from different times. Adoro te, Domine is a three-part motet by Francesco de Peñalosa, from the early renaissance which explains the scoring for three voices which went out of fashion later on. It was played on lower instruments, reflecting the original scoring - probably for alto, tenor and bass. Lux aeterna is the communion antiphon from the Missa pro defunctis by Francisco Guerrero, one of the most important composers of the Spanish renaissance. The last piece was Ascendens Christus in altum, a motet for Ascension Day in which the text is illustrated by ascending figures in the various voices.

The second part started where the first left off with the motet Ave Regina coelorum by Alfonso Lobo. It was followed by another group of pieces which illustrated how vocal works inspired composers for all kinds of arrangements. Philippe Verdelot's madrigal Domend'un giorno a baia was first performed in its original form as written by the composer. Then we heard an arrangement by Cabezón followed by a specimen of a widespread practice in the renaissance: the use of secular music for a parody mass, in this case Guerrero's Missa Dormendo un giorno from which the Agnus Dei was selected. This was played on the lower recorders whereas in the next piece, Victoria's motet Ave Regina coelorum, we heard the higher instruments.

After Hernando de Cabezón's Susana mentioned above the ensemble played two Christmas villancios, among them the well-known Riu, riu, riu which received a playful performance, also because during play the members of the ensemble swapped instruments and alternated between high and low instruments.

The concert ended with a more serene piece: the motet Trahe me post te by Guerrero whose two upper parts are a canon which illustrates the meaning of the text: "Draw me after you, and let us run to the fragrance of your ointments", a text from the Song of Songs. This element was emphasized by the players of the upper voices standing aside the three players who took care of the lower parts. Earlier we also had seen them exploring the space of the concert hall in Lobo's Ave Regina caelorum when two players were standing in the gangways left and right.

It is just an example of the way this ensemble approaches the music it has selected. The concert was a model of creative and thoughtful programming. Three members of the consort now and then gave a short introduction to the music, fortunately clearly audible in excellent Dutch (although two of them were from Germany and Spain respectively). They didn't just repeat parts of the notes in the programme; their explanations made real sense and helped to understand and appreciate the music which was played. It was a good idea to focus on Spanish music: a large part of this repertoire is largely unknown and it is certainly seldom played by recorder consorts. The ensemble has won not only the Van Wassenaer Competition but also other competions and that is easily understandable. The playing was of the highest order: immaculate intonation and perfect ensemble which are two of the main requirements for a good performance of consort music. The fact that a large part of the programme was of vocal origin came well off: one of the features of these performances was the vocal style of playing, with the delicate but clearly audible dynamic shading which is a feature of renaissance vocal music. In their phrasing and articulation the players also observed the vocal origin of the music.

Lastly, the instruments. Not often one will see such a large battery of recorders from very small to very large in one concert. There was a general introduction to the instruments, but I would have liked a more specific introduction to the least common of the recorders: the very low instruments - for instance the great bass recorder - are the most rare and many in the audience will have wondered what they were called. To hear those instruments live and in various combinations was a nice experience.

It was a concert to savour: rare instruments, uncommon repertoire and performances which were technically accomplished and musically compelling. Seldom sene (and heard), indeed.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Concert reviews