Espana Antigua - Spanish Secular Music 1200-1700
Montserrat Figueras (soprano)
Hespèrion XX/Jordi Savall
Full track-list at end of review
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6488012 [8 CDs: 418:54]

This box set comprises eight discs recorded by the remarkable Jordi Savall with his wife Montserrat Figueras and the wonderful Hespèrion XX. They span a period of ten or so years from 1976 were originally issued on LP by Virgin Classics. Since those days Savall’s performances have matured and grown in confidence but one can still easily recognize the brains behind the outfit and the sound-world he wanted to create. Later he moved to Auvidis Astrée and in more recent times has set up his own label - Alia Vox - where he really has been set loose. He has produced discs with superb documentation which have investigated many forgotten corners of medieval and Renaissance music which quite often we never even knew existed.

CD 1 Starts us in the 13th Century with, unusually, some Cansos de Trobaritz, the female troubadours, poets and probably composers who wrote in the langue d’oc. They are so called because although 236 Trobaritz texts (poems by women or written from a woman’s standpoint) are extant only one ‘A Chantar belha mi prezida’ has both, by a remarkable woman the Condesa de Dia. She is represented on this disc by three other poems. It seems likely that melodies by their male counterparts could have been substituted and that is what happens here. No texts are supplied. The booklet does give us just a little more information and there is a general accompanying essay. It so happens that I have the original Virgin CD (Veritas 7243 5 61310 2 6) which provides full details and texts.

The first song listed uses a tune by Gaucelm Faidit, the second by Raimon de Miravel the third by Arnault de Maruelh, the fourth by Guiraut de Bornelh, the fifth by the most revered of them all, Bernart de Ventadorn, the sixth by the Contessa and the seventh by one Cadenet. Some, like the first ‘Vos que’m semblatz’, are dialogue songs and in those cases the three singers are identified.

The identity of the Condesa is still to be firmly established but she wrote in a remarkably candid way. For example in ‘Na Carenza al bel cors’ she fantasises “Would that my knight might one night/lie naked in my arms”. However we later discover “Know that with passion I cherish/the hope of you in my husband’s place”. In the song with her only melody A Chantar m’er de so she worries that her obviously desirable lover is estranged from her and with other women who are more attractive to him.

Savall is inspired in his presentations by an instrumental sound-world from the near east where the troubadours had in the 12th Century and during the early 13th been on at least three crusades and brought back instruments and melodies. In some of the songs although the woman is the key person men do also play their pleading parts. The composer Guiraut de Bornelh is one of key composers of the later 12th Century. His four surviving songs are each quite significant. He was active in Southern France, Northern Spain and in the Holy Land. His Si-us quer conselh, bel’ami Alamanda concerns a male lover who asks a maid of his beloved to intercede for him after some kind of unfaithfulness. The maid (Danzel) becomes a sort of heroine of the song. She is wise and strong-willed and puts Guiraut on the right track after much argument.

The CD ends with Cadenet’s haunting and rather melismatic S’anc fui behla which, appropriately is performed here with the verses split between Figueras and Josep Benet. In a swirl of flute arabesques and lute strumming the final lines in each lament we hear “I call out when I see the dawn” as lovers must then part.

CD 2 consists of music from the so-called Llibre vermell de Montserrat - The Red Book - which consists of Pilgrim Songs for those wishing to see, as you still can, the famous Black Virgin above the chancel in the now modern Cathedral in the high mountains of Catalonia west of Barcelona.

The approach is fairly conservative as far as vocals are concerned but the tunes and harmonies, where they exist, have been, as it were, orchestrated by Savall. He divides the melodic lines between males, females and soloists as in Stella Splendens but, more particularly divides the accompaniment between a wide variety of instruments. These include fiddle, rebab, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery, harp, lute, trombone(!), pommer, lyre, rote. I could go on; it’s a veritable orchestra - the kind of thing one might see in a painting by Raphael or Lippi but here deployed with great care. They are used for preludes, interludes, and postludes and often, drones. Many of these instruments come into their own in Ad Mortem festinamus, a strange ‘danse macabre’. Perhaps, compared with more recent recordings the sometimes slightly raucous Belinda Sykes with the Ensemble Unicorn (Pilgrim Songs from Montserrat Naxos 8.554256) or the overtly folksy Alla Francesca (Opus 111 30-131) Hespèrion XX may seem a little polite. Figueras has such a beautiful voice so these performances lack that rough edge which we have become accustomed to and are a little over-polished. Nevertheless the way Mariam Martrem comes across and for that matter the livelier Imperayitz is most affecting and a pleasure to replay. It is good to be reminded that the melodies often start from plainsong as with O virgo splendens which opens and closes the disc. This is first heard from afar before developing into its usual canon (1:4) as does the later Laudamus virginem. If you enjoy this repertoire then this is a disc you could play right through without a break.

CD 3. It’s incredible to realize that Hespèrion XX have a recording history going back thirty-five years. It was in 1975 that they first tackled the Cancionero de la Columbina as part of a disc entitled Court Music and Songs from the age of the Discoverers (Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama). The manuscript takes its name from the Columbina Library in Seville where it resides, but Columbus’s son Ferdinand once owned it. Six pieces of the ninety-five are selected but curiously only three are vocal; remember, no texts are supplied with this box set. Later, in 1991 they recorded twenty-two pieces for Astrêe (E8763). The style is almost folksy and entirely melodic, and the date range offered is between 1492-1550. From the later period we are given two short lute solos by the great Luis Milan.

Next comes a selection of ten pieces from the Cancionero de Palacia (Palace Songbook), which is housed in Madrid and contains no fewer than 548 items. Savall orders his into two groups, seven Villancicos, which includes two solo lute pieces and three Romances, the latter being much longer, strophic songs that tell a story. For example Si d’amor pena sentis tells of a man exiled to France who is being forced to marry against his will and sends a message to his lover back home in Spain; again, remember, no texts are supplied. Hespèrion XX went on to record twenty-four pieces from the manuscript in 1991 for Auvidis Astrée (E8762) including a much more expressive performance of Al alva venid. In this earlier recording Figueras is slightly less vocally supple and subtle. Also Savall goes in for more instrumental doubling of the vocal line and more percussion. This gives Gabriel Garrido a wide variety of sounds. Savall himself also plays a bowed Saracen chiarra. No harm in all that and the final result is still pleasing. Surely, no group does this repertoire better.

There follows three Recercadas for viol with chordal harp accompaniment. These are based around popular chord progressions and/or melodies of the time by the virtuoso Diego Ortiz. The first, for instance, is based on a melody, which was known outside Spain as La Spagna. Finally Savall offers us five pieces from the Cancionero de Uppsala compiled around 1550. Some of these are to be found in other manuscripts. This publication survives in only one copy found now in Uppsala University library. Especially beautiful is Si la Noce haze escura about a girl who is waiting disconsolately for her lover by a roadside. Most of this repertoire is anonymous but this song I recall Denis Stevens saying might well be by Gombert. Figueras sings this most sensitively and was to record it again in 1995 (on Meridian E8582). It is in four parts - three played here instrumentally - but it works better a capella. Other songs like Soy serranica are more simple and folksy.

CD 4: 1492 was a key year in Spanish history as it was then that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all of the Jews and Muslims from the Kingdom after the surrender of Granada; but the influence of these nations was undeniable and is core to understanding the culture and especially the music of Spain right up to the present day.

On hearing this CD of Sephardic music I was reminded of street musicians I have heard in Cordoba which still has its mosque (with a Christian cathedral within) and identical sounding music in both Tangiers and on the streets of Marrakesh or I should say around the rather kitsch cafés. The Jewish influence can be heard in these performances and melodies. Each is modal and many emphasise the melodic interval of the augmented second.

Of all of the discs in this set this is the most frustrating due to the lack of texts. I cannot tell you what these songs are about although I think each tells a story. Some melodies in their repetitive simplicity are catchy and memorable. An example is El rey que tanto madruga. Moricos los mis moricos concerns a Moroccan girl and has a bagpipe as well as percussion to give it a folk-like quality. Other songs are almost courtly like Una matica de Ruda. The fascinating bowed Saracen chittara is used on several tracks including the very Arab-sounding Lavava y suspirava. They add a new vocal texture. Figueras sometimes employs a harsh head-voice and there are some spoken passages across improvisatory instrumental ones. Talking of which, the brief Paxarico tut e llamas is played as if in a Cordovan street and the haunting La Reina xerifa more is skimpily accompanied by a gentle bell and a later gamba. The melodies are generally reminiscent of those by the twelfth century troubadours but with some eastern inflections. The CD ends with a typical example that is the strophic and dance-like: Oir alli pasó.

CD 5 is entitled Renaissance Music from the Neapolitan court (1442-1556). This disc gives us an opportunity to hear pieces which are a cross-over between Spain and Italy. King Alphonso V of Aragon settled in Naples as Alphonso I and the court became famous for the grandeur of its entertainments and its benevolence towards musicians in particular. Some from Barcelona were already with the King. Others were local and yet others came from Valencia. He founded the library which included musical manuscripts both sacred and secular. It is from these that the selection of nineteen pieces from composers from all over Europe is drawn.

They include real hits of the day like Ghizegehm’s De tous bien plaine and dances like the Basse Danse and also the Galliard as well as Fantasias and Diferencias (by Cabezon again), short songs like Dindirindin and more serious ones like the memorable Que’s mi vida preguntays often attributed to Ockeghem. In other words Savall has tried to give us every possible form and style from the period. We hear the Romance, the Cancion, the Stramboto, and the Villancico - quite an eclectic mix. A particular favourite of mine - and I have known this disc since its appearance as an LP in the mid-1980s - is Nola’s delightful O dio de vede chiaro with its changing time signature, speed and catchy melody. Ay luna, which Savall’s group have often recorded, is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. In addition Figueras is in such wonderful form never forcing the melodies and texts but always passionate. Cabezon’s Diferencias on the folk melody El Caballero makes another appearance with Savall dividing the sections between a mixed consort of wind and strings. Ortiz’s more solemn Fantasies on the Salve Regina plainchant are appropriately given to the sonorous wind instruments. The disc concludes with a piece of joyous jazz in the shape of Willaert’s sexy-sounding Vecchie letrose but which translated means ‘nasty old hags you are worthless”!

CD 6. This disc is devoted to the work of the great organist Antonio de Cabezon who was blind. These were all keyboard works as published or in manuscript. Several performers have ’orchestrated’ them over the last two decades and on the whole this works well as long it is not overdone, as happens here at times. For my taste too much of the sackbut or of other larger wind instruments can impart an undesirably heavy quality.

The pieces fall into four categories. 1: Variants around sacred melodies like the Pange lingua on track one and the Fabourdones on track six. 2: Arrangements and variants on songs and dances by other composers like the Franco-Flemish composer Thomas Crecquillon (1505-1557) and the Venetian Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1562). 3: Variations (Diferencias) on popular tunes or bass lines – for example La Dama le demanda which is also known in French as Belle qui tiens ma vie. 4. Tientos or touch pieces - light, almost didactic works which are freewheeling fantasias. The lute ones here are examples as on track seven and the Fuga-Tiento XIII which is actually no more than a canon at the fifth. Savall also opts for some pieces to be played by wind only as in the song Quien llamo al partir. For Cabezon, using a bass line or set of chords as in La Spagna, was just like composing with a plainchant. Savall uses a mixed consort in Tres sobre la Alta with the lower wind playing the long notes which underpin the string instruments playing the division above.

The La Folia variants are played on a solo lute. This bass line was used for many years and consists of a chordal sequence incorporating I, IV, V and VI over which a melody can be written or improvised - popular 16th Century music-making. The beautiful and famous Pavana Italiana is performed here by strings alone and is a very graceful rendition. The final Tiento III is played by viols and proves that this is very civilised and civilising music qualities brought out most elegantly in this performance.

CD 7: This CD takes us, in its later tracks, into the 17th Century with music that Cervantes, who died I believe on this same day as Shakespeare, might have known. One can imagine that Don Quixote and the hapless Sancho Panza might have indulged in this music on their occasional nights off from their extraordinary adventures. Hespèrion XX divide the twenty-three tracks into three sections. These have not been translated but using my holidaymaker’s Spanish I think they are Romances and dances of the Moors, secondly Romances and Madrigals of the Court and finally Dances both for voices and instruments (‘cantar y tañer’ – I’m a bit vague on this one and so is google). Much of this repertoire the group was to revisit in the 1990s when they recorded for Astreé. It’s full of attractive songs some of which are well known from other recordings. Take for example Ortega’s memorable Pues que tienes, Miguel. They play as an instrumental item Tres morillas m’enamoran about the loving exploits of two Moorish girls Fatima e Marienne. It’s a very memorable melody. Some instrumental pieces are from entablature but are played here by an ensemble. Songs such as Al rebuelo, arranged by one Venegas de Henestrosa and Flecha’s La Gerigonza, a so-called Vaile cantando, are arranged from lute entablature originally by Miguel Fuenllana.

The CD also includes Jácaras - a Spanish dance of Arab origin - in which we hear castanets and Seguidillas that has its origins as a triple-time Castilian folk-dance. The last pieces by Martin y Coll, Romero and Arañés remind us of the coming popularity of the zarzuela and the Spanish theatre of the 17th Century and also of the style of music - with its syncopated and catchy rhythms - soon to spread into the New World.

CD 8: Spanish Baroque Secular Music 1640-1700. For this CD Savall assembled a crack team. In addition to himself and his wife there is Ton Koopman on the harpsichord, Hopkinson Smith on the guitar and theorbo and Christopher Coln on the viola da gamba. The thrust of this rather short disc is theatre music: the form which led towards the zarzuela. Two of the main characters in its development are represented: Jose Marin and the harpist Juan Hidalgo. Their music, like much of the rest of the CD, has a touch of Italian influence and some French, but has a rhythmic vigour which is typically Spanish. You can hear this in Hidalgo’s bouncy Con tanto respect adoran. Any Arab influence, heard in earlier times, has now vanished in favour of a more general European style.

Amongst other highlights I would mention a fine Chaconne or Chacona by the little known Martin y Coll - who also featured on CD 7 - passionately played by Savall. There’s also the same composer’s beautifully played Variations on ‘La Folia’ which became a staple for the demonstration of virtuosic skills throughout the baroque.

Again the lack of texts is acutely felt. The music, especially of Hidalgo with its changes of mood and tempo, seems to reflect the words to a considerable extent. The accompaniment used varies attractively between theorbo, gamba and harpsichord, or guitar and a basse de violin, always keeping the ear interested.

The aria by Duron who, later in life was appointed master of the Royal Chapel, comes from a zarzuela Salir el amor del mundo and covers aria, arioso and a touch of recit - a good example of its genre. Juan Cabanilles was organist at Valencia Cathedral and is represented by a flashy, short Toccata and a virtuoso and sprightly Galliardo, which certainly could not be danced.

A typically dance-like canco or aria by Hidalgo brings this disc and the entire set to a happy ending, having carried the attentive listener through five hundred years of music, wonderfully played and recorded. It’s a real bible of early Spanish musical art which at the bargain price offered is well worth its weight in gold.

Gary Higginson

Five hundred years of music, wonderfully played and recorded - a real bible of early Spanish musical art which at the bargain price offered is well worth its weight in gold.

Full Track-List

CD 1 [50.06] Cansos de Trobairitz - c. 1200
Gaucelm FAIDIT (c.1150-1220) Vos que’m semblatz del corals amadors (dialogue) [3.53]; Raimon de MIRAVAL (c.1180-1215) Estat ai en greu cossirier (cansó) [6.07]; Arnault de MARUELH (C..1170-1200) Na Carenza al bel cors avinen (tenso-cancó) [6.07]; Guiraut de BORNELH (c.1140-1200) Si us quer conselh, bel’ami Alamanda (tensoó) [9.42]; Bernart de VENTADORN (c.1135-1195) text by Condesa de DIA (fl.c.1200) Ab joi at abjoven m’apals (cansó) [5.26]; A chanter de so q’ieu no voldria (canco) [8.20]; CADENET (fl.c.1200-1230) S’anc fui belha ni prezada (alba) [10.24]. Also with Pitar Figueras (soprano) and Josep Bene (tenor). rec. Ev. Kirche, Séon, 7-9 June 1975

CD 2 [59.18] Llibre Vermell de Montserrat
ANON O Virgo splendens [3.58]; Stella Splendens [7.25]; Laudemus virgenem [2.13]; Los set goyts recomptarem [7.30]; Splendens ceptigera [2.05]; Polorum regina [6.01]; Cuncti simus concanentes [5.01]; Mariam Matrem [7.21]; Imperayritz de la cuitat joyosa [6.50]; Ad mortem festinamus [7.12] rec. 11-14 July 1976, St. Savinien, France

CD 3 [57.20] Court Music and Songs from the Age of the Discoverers - Villancicos from Cancionero de la Columbina
ANON Niña y viña [1.34]; Propiñan de melyor [1.42]; Como no le andarñ yo [2.20]; Recercada [1.37]; Luis MILAN (c.1500-1561) Fantasia [2.15]; Pavana [1.52]

Villancicos and Romances from the Cancionero de Pallacio
Al Alva venid [3.46]; Perdi la mi rrueca [2.22]; A los baños del amor [1.34]; Fantasia [1.39]; Romanesca 1.14]; GARCIMUNOS (fl.c.1500) Pues bien para esta [3.19]; Si avñis dicho [1.58]; Si d’maor pena sentis [5.09];] ROMAN (fl.c.1500) O voy; Juan de ENCINA (1468-1529) Qu’es de ti, desconsolado [5.30]; Diego ORTIZ (1525-c.1561) Recarcada Four [1.41]; Five [2.19]; Six [1.15]; Yo me soy [1.10]; Si la noche haze escura [3.46]; Soleta sò joaci [1.32]; Con quò la lavarò [3.51]; Soy serranica [1.17]. rec. 11-14 July 1978, St. Savinien, France

CD 4 [51.04] Sephardic Romances from the Age before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492
ANON Pregoneros van y vienen [5.05]; El rey de Francia tres hijas tenia [5.11]; Una matica de Ruda [2.49]; Palestina hermoza [1.31]; Nani, Nani [6.04]; El rey tanto madruga [3.05]; Por qué llorax blanca niña [7.30]; Moricos los mis moricas [2.57]; Lavava y supirava [5.34]; Paxarico tut e llamas [1.49]; La Reina xerifa [5.55]; Por alli pasó. rec. 4-10 November 1975, Munstermuseum. Basel

CD 5 [53.04] Renaissance music from the Neapolitan court (1442-1556)
ANON Zappay [1.09]; Viva, viva rey Fernando [3.30]; Amor, che t’o fat hio [1.56]; Puis Fortuna [2.52]; Dindirindin (Romance) [1.44]; Ay luna (Villancico) [3.17]; Hayne van GHIZEGHEM (1445-1497) De tous biens plain [3.08]; Johannes CORNAGO (c.1455-1485) Donde estas que non te vero [2.08]; Qu’es mi veda preguntays (attrib. Ockeghem) [4.58]; Antonio CORNAZANO (c.1430-1484) Figlie Guilieman (basse danse); Guglielmo PESARO (c.1425-60) Collinetto (Ballo) [1.59]; Giovanni da NOLA (c.1520-1570) O Dio se ved chiaro (villanesca) [3.20]; Cingari simo venit; a giocare [2.27]; Francisco de la TORRE (fl.c.1483-1504) Basse Danse – Danza alta [2.33]; Nicolas GOMBERT (c.1495-1560) Dezide al caballero [4.23]; Antonio de CABEZON Diferencias sobre el canto del cavallero [2.40]; Diego ORTIZ Fantasia I-II “Salve Regina” [2.26]; Adrian WILLAERT (c.1490-1562) piece unspecified [2.07]. rec. June 1983, Basilica, Kloster Steinfeld, Eifel, Germany

CD 6 [50.11] Antonio de CABEZON (c.1510-1566)
Instrumental Works
Himno XIX Pange lingua IV [3.04]; Pour un plaisir (Crecquillon) [1.58]; Diferencias sobre ‘La dame le demanda’ [3.30]; Tiento II.Cuarto tono [2.45]; Pavan con su glosa [2.19]; Fabourdones del sexton ton [3.07]; Tiento VIII [2.42]; Quien llamo al partir [1.50]; Tres sobre de Alto (La Spagna) [1.44]; Un gay bergier (Crecquillon) [2.38]; Diferencias sobra ‘La Vacas [2:33]; Tiento IX Quinto tono [2.40]; Para quien L’a Folia’ [3.06]; Tiento XIII Fuga a cuatro [2.11]; Tiento VII Cuarto tono [3.06]; Diferencias sobre la pavan Italiana [2.23]; Je fille quant die (Willaert)[2.33]; Tiento III Primer tono [4.30]. rec. November 1983, Catholic Church, Seewen, Basel

CD 7 [49.58] Songs and dances from the time of Cervantes (1547-1616)
ANON Tres morillas m’enemoran [1.35]; Romance Pues non me queries [1.04];
Al rebuelo de una garça [1.31]; Seguidillas en eco :De tu vista celoso [1.55]; Pedro GUERRERO (fl.c1550) La Perra mora [1.35]; Diego PISADOR (d.c.1557-8) Romance de Abindarraez [3.59]; Alonso MUDARRA (d.1580) Fantasia y Galliarda [3.24]; Luis de NARVÂEZ (d.c, 1560) Romance del Tey moro [3.40]; Alonso MUDARRA Condee Claros [1.57]; Francisco PALERO (?) Romance Mira, Neiro [1.48]; Francisco GUERRERO Deso la venda [1.51]; Juan VASQUEZ (d.after 1560) Romance de Don Beltan [2.34]; Quienamores tiene [1.30]; Juan de ANCHIETA (c.1550) Dos ánades, madre [1.26]; Juan ORTEGA (fl.c1560) Pues que ne ienes, Miguel [2.55]; Pedro RIMONTE (c.1600) Madre, la mi madre [3.12]; Diego ORTIZ (c.1525-1561) Folia VIII [1.47]; Mateo FLECHA (d.1553) La Gerigonza [1.24]; Antonio MARTIN Y SOL (17th Century) El Villano [1.54]; Danza del hacha [1.36]; Antonio de SANTA CRUZ (17th Cent) Jácaras [2.39]; Pedro ROMERO (d.1647) Folia: A la dulce risa del alva [2.08]; Juan ARAÑÈS (fl.c.1630-40) Chacona:A la vida bona [1.44]. rec. 11-14 July 1978, St.Savinien, France

CD 8 [47.53] Baroque Secular Music 1640-1700
De MILANES (17th Century) Dexa aljava [3.14]; Jose MARIN (1619-1690) Aquella sierra Nevada [2.41]; Juan HIDALGO (1614-1685) Peynándose estaba un lomo [1.44]; Atiende y da [2.59]; Ay Corazón amante [3.37]; Ay que me rio de amor [1.53]; Con tanto respect adoran [2.34]; Ay que me rio de amor [1.53]; Antonio Martin y COLL (d.after 1724) La Chacona [5.12]; Diferencias sobre las Foli; [6.47]; Canarios [0.37]; Sebastian DURÓN (1660-1716) Sosieguen descansen [5.20]; Juan CABANILLES (1644-1712) Toccata [1.21]; Galiardo [6.45]; Juan del VADO (fl.c.1635-1685) No te embarques [2.33]. rec. June 1983, Basilica, Kloster Steinfeld, Eifel, Germany