El Cancionero de Medinaceli
It has been a long wait for anyone wanting to hear the Spanish song repertory of the midsixteenth century in any significant amount on a single recording. The odd item has appeared in miscellaneous anthologies in the past, but this has never achieved more than to whet the appetite and heighten the sense of frustration. The song repertory of 50 years earlier is much more widely available (especially after the Columbus anniversary) and better known. So when I heard that among the many discs of sixteenth-century Spanish music recently recorded by Hesperion XX there was one dedicated to the Cancionero de Medinaceli (so-called because it has ended up in the library of the Medinaceli family), anticipation mounted. Perhaps that was a dangerous thing to allow, for I am now feeling not a little disappointed. Not because of the music, which is of an unfailingly high standard, nor because of the selection of pieces which covers well the full range of the songbook with simple, popular-style villancicos, ensalada-like parodies (with macaronic texts and onomatopoeic nonsense syllables) and fully-fledged Italianate madrigals. No, it is because the performances, for all their flair and expertise, seem so little suited to the repertory.
I should have known what to expect from Hesperion: highly colourful, instrumentally-based interpretations, with plenty of percussion and a kaleidoscopic approach that almost invariably changes the scoring for each verse or section of even the shortest pieces. I have already expressed my doubts about this approach in the earlier song repertory (see ''Quarterly Retrospect'', 12/92), but at least there some of the more unsophisticated songs (those that basically consist of the harmonization of a popular melody) sound quite convincing: they add to rather than detract from the liveliness of the original. One or two of the songs included on this disc could be said to fall in the same category in that they share this popular feel, but even here the style of the pieces is much more contrapuntal and intricate. I'm not disputing the fact that this repertory might have been performed by the groups of instrumentalists represented here: an alta cappella of shawms and sackbutts and a consort of viols. (Indeed, some evidence for this mode of performance of exactly this sort of repertory has recently emerged, though much more work needs to be done in the area of performance practice of secular music in the Iberian peninsular at this time.) And Hesperion do perform a couple of items very successfully this way, as well as some instrumental arrangements and variations by Antonio de Cabezon. As always, the standard of instrumental playing is very high and the execution very imaginative. What I object to—and it is really not just an academic nicety—is that most of the songs, of whatever style, are performed with one or more voices with these being consistently doubled by the instruments, whether wind or bowed or both and usually plus a frenetically active (in Leppardesque continuo style) vihuela. This weightiness of sound cannot but muddy the textures, very often of subtle degree of intricacy, and, worse still, mar the expressivity of the music. The words almost invariably take a back-seat to the driving force of variety of instrumental scoring. Take Cebrian's wonderfully expressive love threnody Lagrimas de mi consuelo for example. This begins in a strangely perverse way with only the bass line sung (hardly an appropriate text-bearing melody, with its succession of leaps of fourths and fifths as it fulfils its primarily harmonic function) and viols on the upper voices. The following four verses are all varied in the way in which voices and instruments are combined, giving a sense of restlessness to the musical delivery and severely detracting from the projection of what is a very eloquent text with its reference to the
There are two notable exceptions to this, both of which to my mind serve the music so much better. Montserrat Figueras sings the version of Claros y frescos rios by Alonso Mudarra (which differs in many respects from that found in the songbook) with vihuela accompaniment. Her vocal idiosyncracies will never appeal to everyone, but at least here the text gets some sort of look in. The last song on the disc, Francisco Guerrero's magical Ojos claros y serenos, is performed a cappella—no instruments at all. This should have made me happy—and to an extent it did, because, all of a sudden, both text and texture were clear and the subtle expressiveness of the music could be discerned. This was a taste of something altogether different: a fusion of words and music of immense and, despite the language, universal appeal. (Of course, it is one of the finest pieces in the collection, which is perhaps why Hesperion singled it out for such special treatment.) Other reservations about the manner of performance quickly made themselves felt, however. Without instrumental support the singers seemed lost, with little sense of overall blend or how to phrase: such matters were present but largely concealed in the tutti items. And I could not believe how understated the interpretation was: could any Spaniard respond, now or in the sixteenth century, so lifelessly to that exclamation of anguish, ''ay'', here set off by rests in so telling a way by Guerrero? It is a shame that the singers clearly felt so naked without their instrumental clothing that they became so coy as to seek fig leaves to cover the bare emotion of Guerrero's setting. Yet this must be the way forward, and perhaps with more experience of performing a cappella even these singers would find a way to be more daringly and explicitly expressive. I would like to be able to recommend this disc, for the music has much to offer, and the Castilian-texted madrigal can be quite as beautiful as its Italian counterpart. Fans of the Hesperion XX sound will be quite happy anyway.'