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Concert reviews

Música Temprana/Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoel
concert: Nov 19, 2016, Utrecht, Nicolaïkerk

anon: A los baños del amor; A los maytines era; Al Alba venid; Ay, de mi qu'en tierra ajena; Ay, luna que reluçes; El Canto de la Sibila; En Ávila, mis ojos; Muchos van de amor heridos; Ojuelos graçiosos; Triste esta la reyna; Garci Sánchez DE BADAJOZ (c1460-1524): O, desdichado de mi; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1455-1521), arr Luys DE NARVÁEZ (fl 1526-1549): Mille regretz 'La canción del Emperador'; Juan DEL ENCINA (1468-1529): Pues que jamás olvidaros; Pedro DE ESCOBAR (c1475-c1520): Luis MILÁN (c1500-1561): Fantasia 11; MOXICA (fl late 15th C): No queriendo sois querida; Diego ORTIZ (c1510-c1570): Ricercada; Juan PONCE (c1480-after 1520): Allá se me ponga el sol; Francisco DE LA TORRE (c1460-c1504): Dime triste corazón

Luciana Cueto, Sophia Patsi, mezzo-soprano; Emilio Aguilar, tenor; Adrián Rodríguez van der Spoel, tenor, vihuela de mano, renaissance guitar; Paulina van Laarhoven, vihuela de arco; Emma Hijsser, harp

Last December I attended a concert by the ensemble Música Temprana which performed a programme of music entitled "Baroque Virtuosos from Peru". A large part of the music was quite temperamental and virtuosic. The concert of the same ensemble which took place last Saturday was very different in character. It was called Melancolia. We know this state of mind in particular from the Elizabethan period in England where it was most prominently expressed in the Lachrimae by John Dowland. But melancholy is of all times.

In the Elizabethan era it was a kind of fashion and had probably little to do with how people really felt. Whether that was any different in Spain around 1500 is an interesting question which is probably impossible to answer. But it is not impossible that the music included in the programme indeed reflects the actual state of mind of many people. It was a time of insecurity: on the one hand the end of the Reconquista, the gradual expulsion of the Moors which ended with the fall of the last islamic state on the Iberian peninsula at Granada, and the discovery of the New World, on the other hand wars and the definitive end of what once was a more or less peaceful cohabitation of the adherents of different religions, which came to an end with the expulsion of those Jews who refused to convert to the Christian faith.

Those who have experienced the revival of early music will know the song by Juan del Encina, Triste España sin ventura; it was often performed and recorded, for instance by the ensemble Musica Reservata. Its first stanza says: "Sad, joyless Spain, everyone should weep for you. Barren, devoid of happiness that shall never return." This piece was not performed but sums up pretty well the mood of the compositions which were included. An anonymous piece by Antonio de Contreras, Triste esta la reyna, was not very different from that song by del Encina. The latter was represented with another song, Pues que jamás olvidaros, about a lover who addresses a lady who is out of reach. Loneliness was a recurring subject in the songs in the first part of the concert. It opened with an anonymous piece, A los baños del amor: "Alone I shall go to the baths of love" which is dominated by a repeated four-note motif. It is from the Cancionero de Palacio, one of various collections with songs connected to the Spanish court. There were songs about the moon (anon, Ay, luna que reluçes), the sun (Juan Ponce, Allá se me ponga el sol) - again connected to love - and the night, No pueden dormir mis ojos, by Pedro de Escobar. Most songs are written from a male perspective. The anonymous Al Alba venid is different; it is a so-called canción de amigo, whose text is written from a female perspective (but not necessarily by a woman).

A woman was then the key figure in the last part of the programme: the anonymous El Canto de la Sibila. The Sibyls were oracular women which in ancient Greece were believed to possess prophetic powers. The first author to mention a Sibyl was Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. In the course of time various authors referred to more Sibyls, up to ten, whose names referred to the shrine from which they spoke. In the Renaissance the number varies, and sometimes reaches twelve, as is the case in Lassus' Prophetiae Sibyllarum. The Sibyls were also the subject of paintings, for instance by Michelangelo. The Sibylline writings were given a Christian interpretation since the second century. They were believed to prophesy the coming of Christ. Although composers set texts by ancient writers without any Christian connotation, in this case the Christian interpretation was the incentive to set them to music.

Whereas one could associate the melancholic songs with November, the month in which All Souls' Day is celebrated, the Sibyllic prophecies are associated with Christmas Eve. There are several versions of the Canto de la Sibila. This version was divided into six sections which in this performance followed each other without interruption; the various sections were announced through the ringing of a bell. This resulted in a coherence which increased the tension and the impact of this piece. Each section was divided into three stanzas, opening with an announcement of the Sibyl, and closing with a kind of chorus of three voices.

Música Temprana always has great singers in its ranks. That was the case last December, it was not different here. Only one was the same, Adrián Rodriguez van der Spoel, who not only plays plucked instruments but also sings as a tenor. The main singer was the mezzo-soprano Luciana Cueto whom I had never heard before. What a beautiful voice she has got: warm, colourful, flexible and expressive. It was simply a joy to listen to her performances in the songs which constituted the first part of the concert. She also sang the role of the Sibyl and her performance was brilliant. It was a little unfortunate that the audience didn't have the text and its translation. But thanks to Ms Cueto's communicative skills it hardly mattered. The other singers also contributed to this performance making a lasting impression: alongside Rodríguez van der Spoel the mezzo-soprano Sophia Patsi and the tenor Emilio Aguilar whose voices blended perfectly. I should not forget to mention the fine contributions of the instrumentalists: Emma Huijsser on the harp, who played a major role in the Canto de la Sibila, Paulina van Laarhoven on the vihuela de arco and the ensemble's director.

The performances were enthusiastically received by the audience and rightly so. It resulted in a very beautiful encore: the anonymous A los maytines era from the Cancionera de la Colombina.

It was a most memorable concert and it would be great if this programme would make it to disc.

N.B. Some extracts from the music performed during this concert can be heard on the channel of Música Temprana YouTube.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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