For me, the name Francesc Valls has for a long
time meant just one piece, the ‘Missa Scala Aretina’
with that fascinatingly strange opening to the Kyrie.
This harmonic novelty for the period comes as the result of
using an unprepared 9th interval, something which caused something
of an uproar in musical circles at the time. The booklet notes
to this release are a concise and learned education on ‘Dualism
in the Spanish Baroque’, giving considerable background on the
royal and political situations in which the artists found themselves
– an essential part of artistic life, since without the patronage
of the highest ranks in society their could be no creative existence.
Valls was a prolific
composer and respected theoretician, reaching the prestigious
positions of Chapel Master in Catalonia, and later both in Mataro
and as Chapel Master in the Cathedral of Gerona. He finally
achieved the top position in the Cathedral in Barcelona, where
he remained for over thirty years.
The sound on this
CD represents the Spanish style of the time, avoiding the Italianate
cornettos, shawms and sackbuts, which were considered ‘dangerous’.
The result is a clean sounding ensemble with violins and a cello,
the plucked strings of guitars or lutes, organ and some swingingly
syncopated percussion to accompany the voice or voices. The
pieces of this time are referred to as tono which was
a general term for all Spanish song or melody, further described
by words such as humano (secular), and divino
or sagrada (sacred). Valls’ own treatise, the Mapa
armonico practico, describes the differences between national
styles as seen by a composer proud of his Spanish heritage.
This is quoted in the booklet, and gives some interesting insights
into the values held most important to musicians in his time.
The song texts are provided in full but not in translation,
making full appreciation of the message in the songs something
of a struggle – you can get the gist, but non-linguists like
me will always have the feeling that they are missing something.
There are few if
any of the luscious dissonances in the Mass to which I referred
earlier, but the music on this disc more than makes up for this
in terms of energy and sheer rhythmic gusto. There is plenty
of variety in what is little more than a chamber ensemble, and
the recorded sound is excellent. Judging by the photos on the
inside of sleeve the musicians were ranged on the balcony of
the church, and with an elegant spread of baroque guitars or
lutes left and right and a beautiful acoustic the whole thing
is very easy on the ears indeed. I enjoyed the singing as well,
which is natural and unforced, with expressive vibrato and a
sense of unmannered and joyous music making throughout.
The other composers,
Pablo Bruna and Joan Cabanilles, represent some of the important
work for organ which was written by some of Valls’ contemporaries.
These works provide valuable interludes and contrast in timbre
between the ensemble pieces and are a good move in terms of
programming. The tientos falsas are the chromatic or
‘unsingable’ intervals for which Bruna had a predilection, and
with the baroque tuning of the gorgeously intimate sounding
organ in the Church of St Laurent the reasons for applying this
term to Bruna’s writing becomes immediately apparent.
This release is a
beautifully prepared and performed production, and a stylish representative
of current historical performing practice – something which has
progressed immeasurably in recent years. The gatefold cardboard
sleeve in which the CD and booklet are somewhat precariously held
might have been a little more sturdy, but this is a very minor
caveat and should put nobody off from adding this big-hearted
little gem to their collection.