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De Vez En Cuando La Vida
Joan Manuel SERRAT (b. 1943)
Arrangements by Quito Gato
Romance de Curro "El Palmo" [8:03]
Mediterráneo [4:34]
De vez en cuando la vida [3:50]
Pare [6:36]
Aquellas pequeñas cosas [2:58]
Francisco VALLS (c1671-1707)
Esta vez, cupidillo [3:06]
Lucas Ruiz DE RIBAYAZ (1626-1677)
Xácaras por primer tono [2:27]
ANON La canço dell ladre (arr. Gato) [3:57]
Juan Bautista José CABANILLES (1644-1712)
Mortales que amáis [9:27]
Mateo FLECHA "El Viejo" (1481-1553)
La bomba [10:21]
ANON (after a Catalan folksong)
La presó de Lleida (arr. Gato) [5:00]
Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Música callada - I (Transcription for harp - Gato) [1:28]
Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo García Alarcón (harpsichord)
rec. 2017/18, Philharmonie de Paris, France and Studio Ansermet, Geneva, Switzerland
Full texts and translations included
ALPHA 412 [61:49]

This disc represents a considerable change in direction for Leonardo García Alarcón’s early music and baroque ensemble Cappella Mediterranea. In the last few years they have released revelatory discs of some pretty obscure repertoire; Falvetti (review and review) and Strozzi on Ambronay, Arcadelt (review) and Giorgi (review) on Ricercar, while their previous outing on Alpha was a delicious compilation of Monteverdi arias, duets and madrigals entitled I 7 Peccati Capitali (The Seven Deadly Sins - review). This new release sees the group celebrate the music and lyrics one of Alarcón’s heroes, the contemporary Catalan singer/songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat whose best known song, Mediterráneo, included here, is widely considered the most important Spanish song of the twentieth century. For this project Alarcón has recruited his Argentine compatriot, close friend and fellow early music specialist Quito Gato to arrange a handful of Serrat’s most famous songs for voices and a vivacious ensemble which includes vihuela, guitars, Spanish harp, viola da gamba as well as more conventional instruments such as flute, cello and double bass.

Serrat’s songs are presented in the context of Catalan folksongs and vocal works by lesser known Spanish baroque masters such as Valls and Cabanilles, as well as a Gato arrangement for Spanish harp of the first piece from Federco Mompou’s piano masterpiece Música callada. Alarcón’s goal is to show how Serrat’s ability as a setter of the Spanish language owes much to models from the Spanish Golden Age. Indeed many of Serrat’s songs are influenced and inspired by poets such as Machado, Lorca, and Neruda. One consequence of Gato’s imaginative arrangements and Alarcón’s ambitious cross-pollination is that the ancient material takes on a more modern feel, whereas Serrat’s songs assume a ‘classical’ stature that their obvious quality undoubtedly merits.

While Serrat has demonstrated very strong political leanings which are reflected in many of his lyrics (and which have occasionally landed him in hot water in various Spanish speaking countries across the world), he is clearly a songsmith of the highest order. On a superficial level, there are perhaps similarities between Serrat and the likes of Jacques Brel or Serge Gainsbourg; but artistically and musically speaking, this project possibly has more in common with a superb disc Harmonia Mundi released in 2012, which went somewhat under the radar: “Requiem for a Pink Moon” (HMC 902111), a bold and beautiful album by the American bass and lutenist Joel Frederiksen and the Ensemble Phoenix which presented the timeless songs of the ill-starred English singer/songwriter Nick Drake in the context of Elizabethan music. The key, I think, to the success of that issue is the same one which applies to this Serrat disc. It absolutely defies intellectual critical analysis and justification. It is a delightful hour spent in the company of some fantastic musicians who are paying deserved and unusual homage to a master songwriter of whatever era and style. And as I have found, it stands up admirably to regular repetition.

The velvet-voiced soprano Mariana Flores contributes lead vocals to four of the five Serrat items here and for one whose background lies in baroque music her delivery of these very contrasting examples of Serrat’s art is magical. The extended ballad that opens the disc (Romance de Curro ‘El Palmo’) is effectively a tragic mini-opera and Flores plumbs its depths with earthiness and pathos, the verses differentiated by the subtleties of Gato’s arrangements. The sun-dappled sounds of Spanish harp and flute dominate the arrangement of Mediterráneo, Serrat’s passionate homage to his homeland. Here the vocal is distributed madrigal-like among four voices in a nod to early French polyphony. At its centre is a delectable baroque instrumental break. Flores perfectly conveys the ambiguous levity of De vez en cuando la vida (From time to time), which is aptly followed by Francisco Valls’ defiant paean to the slings and arrows of life Esta vez, cupidillo (This time, little Cupid), dramatically rendered by the tenor Valerio Contaldo and an accompaniment driven by a strong Flamenco accent. The most overtly political song here is Pare (Father), which is a polemic about environmental destruction. Here the soloist is another soprano, Maria Hinajoso Montenegro, like Serrat a Catalan. She conveys the palpable sense of anger in Serrat’s despairing words, while the instrumental writing at times evokes medieval music. The final track on the album is a brief and touching canción, Aquellas pequeñas cosas (Those little things) which addresses the idea that overall life means something far greater than the sum of each individual, seemingly inconsequential memory. Flores’ voice here is affectingly fragile, while the accompaniment is pared down to just guitar, cello and double-bass. This is the most conventionally contemporary of these arrangements.

Of the remaining pieces on this attractive recital, two stand out, and each lasts about ten minutes. Cabanilles’ Mortales que amáis is a glorious, complex five-part accompanied motet, selected according to Alarcón, because of the importance of the Passion in Spanish culture; the account here radiates Iberian warmth and is more akin to the material on previous recordings by this group. The same applies to La bomba, a four-part ensalada by Mateo Flecha the Elder which entertainingly describes human experience in terms of a shipwreck and points to the arrival of the infant Jesus as “saving us from a thousand woes”. It is by turns dramatic, amusing and heartfelt, and colourfully accompanied by Quito Gato’s atmospheric vihuela and percussion. Another highlight is Gato’s almost jazzy adaptation of the medieval Catalan folk tune La presó de Lleida (The jail of Lleida). This is treated to a truly opulent arrangement.

All the items on this disc are touched to a greater or lesser degree by the rays of the Iberian sun. Performances, arrangements and the full-blooded recording are beyond reproach. Serrat’s songs may at source have a local provenance but they project universal appeal and relevance. Presenting them in this kind of context underlines their classic, enduring status and more than justifies Leonardo García Alarcón’s decision to employ his wonderful ensemble to celebrate the work of one of his musical idols. In this corner of Lancashire as the nights really start to draw in, it’s an hour well spent.

Richard Hanlon

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