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Melancolia PTC5186294
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Música Temprana/Adrián Rodriguez van der Spoel
rec. 2020, Pieterskerk, Utrecht, Netherlands
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
PENTATONE PTC5186294 [74:03]

If melancholy and music are mentioned in the same breath, one is inclined to think immediately of John Dowland. His Lachrymae or Seven Teares are the most famous expression of a state of mind that was widespread in his time. However, melancholy is of all times. And this explains the title of the disc under review here, which is devoted to music from the Iberian peninsula, written in the 15th and the early 16th century.

In the time of Dowland 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 quite possible that the music included in the programme indeed reflects the actual state of mind of many people. It was a time of change which often causes insecurity. Among the events that shook the world in different ways were the discovery of America and in Spain in particular the end of the Reconquista with the conquest of Granada (and with it the end of the presence of the Moors in Spain). At the end of the 15th century Jews were forced either to convert to the Christian faith or to leave. It marked the end of a more or less peaceful cohabitation of the adherents of different religions which had lasted several centuries.

Those who have experienced the revival of early music may 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 is not performed here but sums up pretty well the mood of the compositions which are included in the programme. The difference with the above-mentioned song is that in these pieces the melancholy is mostly the effect of misery in the love life of individual characters.

The programme opens 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 of songs connected to the Spanish court, and one of the main sources of the programme performed by Música Temprana. One can find there even a rather grim piece, the anonymous En Ávila, mis ojos: "In Ávila at the river, there my beloved friend was murdered." A composer with the name Garcimuñoz wrote Una montaña pasando, a song about two unhappy shepherdesses, whose unhappiness has different causes: one complains that the cowherd she loves is avoiding her, whereas the second says: "Mother, may I die, as I do not want to marry, no!" They meet pilgrims, who express their empathy with the two girls. This piece is an example of an ensalada, a salad of different ingredients. The ensaladas by Mateo Flecha, some of which are quite long, have become well known. They mix fragments of different character and in different languages. That is here the case as well, although the piece is much more modest in proportions. It ends with a quotation from Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis, in which one word has been replaced.

¡Cómo está sola mi vida! by Juan Ponçe is another piece that includes a reference to the Bible, in this case the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The first verses of this book get here a secular turn: "How lonely my life is, full of worries, lamenting and despondent grieving about the past". Pieces like this one - and the ensalada just mentioned - demonstrate that at that time there was no watershed between the sacred and the secular. A number of pieces in the programme are villancicos, which in the time the cancioneros were put together, were secular songs. In the course of time this genre turned sacred, and was often used for texts about the birth of Jesus or in honour of the Holy Sacrament.

The last piece of this disc is also an interesting mixture of the secular and the sacred, 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.

There are several versions of the Canto de la Sibila. The version performed here, which is from Cuenca (Castile), is divided into six sections which follow each other without interruption. The verses are in plainchant, and performed here by a solo voice to the accompaniment of a harp. The verses are separated by responses, and these are performed here mostly in polyphony, for which the performers have turned to several sources. Some of the polyphony is from the pen of Cristóbal de Morales. This work is written from the perspective of the Last Judgment, as the introduction makes clear: "Sign of Judgment: The soil drenched with sweat. A harsh Judgment will be cast, with a cruel death." The latter phrase is repeated in the form of responses, and each section ends with the words: "On Judgment Day we will know who has served God." This explains why this work has been included in a programme devoted to melancholy. As explained above, melancholy was often provoked by insecurity, and those feelings also can give way to an awareness of the end of the world.

The cancioneros which are among the sources of this programme, are pretty well-known and often used in recordings. However, it is mostly the more extroverted songs that are performed, often in lively tempi and with percussion. The choice of melancholy as the subject of this programme explains why we get completely different pieces here. This disc is not just one of many. That makes it all the more welcome: we get a different look at the musical culture at the Iberian peninsula around 1500. The tempi are mostly modest or even slow, and the dynamic range is not very wide. Percussion is entirely absent.

Música Temprana always has great singers in its ranks. Here a major role is played by the soprano Olalla Alemán and the mezzo-soprano Luciana Cueto. The latter is the soloist in El Canto de la Sibila; she sings the part of the Sibyl extremely well. She has a really beautiful voice, and her diction is excellent. The other singers are mainly involved in the responses, and there we also hear the winds. Emma Huijsser deserves special mention for her fine harp playing.

This disc has it all: a concept that makes much sense and that is convincingly worked out, a programme of beautiful songs that is different from what is usually performed, and interpretations that are technically and musically of the highest quality. This disc deserves attentive listening, which is richly rewarding.

Johan van Veen

A los baños del amor [3:16]
Francisco de LA TORRE (fl 1483-1504)
Dime triste coraçón [1:08]
Ojos, mis ojos [1:48]
En Ávila mis ojos [2:46]
Melancolía [3:00]
Una montaña pasando [7:12]
Juan PONCE (c1476-after 1520)
Allá me se ponga el sol [2:06]
Dentro en el vergel a 3 [1:21]
Muchos van de amor heridos [1:23]
MOXICA (fl late 15th C)
No queriendo sois querida [3:56]
Pedro DE ESCOBAR (c1465-after 1535)
Ojos morenicos [2:38]
Dentro en el vergel a 4 [1:41]
Cómo está sola mi vida [2:20]
Garci Sánchez DE BADAJOS (c1460-after 1524)
O desdichado de mi [4:24]
Distopía [2:29]
Johannes URREDE (fl 1451-1482)
Muy triste será mi vida [5:44]
El Canto de la Sibila [26:45]

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