IN: Reviews

Blue Heron’s 16th-c. Spain with Song of Songs, Songs of Love


On Saturday, March 13, Scott Metcalfe and his virtuoso a cappella ensemble Blue Heron Renaissance Choir cast a comprehensive glance over what awakening 16th-century Spain had to say on the subject of passion. Mr. Metcalfe’s nicely judged juxtaposition of small forces and large, of a cappella textures and rich-hued accompanied tapestries, entertained and engaged the sizable audience in First Church, Cambridge. Blue Heron had the able support of three top instrumentalists, whose participation gave proof of the great contrast between Iberian and the generally unaccompanied European choral music of the time.

<p>Blue Heron’s twelve singers, with bajón, arpa doble, and chamber organ  (photo by Christopher Greenleaf)</p>
Blue Heron’s twelve singers, with bajón, arpa doble, and chamber organ (photo by Christopher Greenleaf)

Carlos 1, Holy Roman Emperor and grandson of Fernando y Isabella, ruled a passionately conflicted, church-obsessed land. Iberia’s artistically and scientifically advanced Moors had just been comprehensively crushed, and a terrible forced exodus of the formerly well integrated Sephardim was in full flood. Both of these human losses were to tragically smother Spanish learning, theology, culture, Mediterranean trade, the land’s infant postal service, and a former near-universal tolerance. Still, this Spain was musically and artistically fecund to an extent that took the breath away from the necessarily hardy visitors of that distant, turbulent era. Culture, notably music, flourished and took on great depth of expression. Music went its own way, too, for Castilian Iberia, though in constant mercantile and churchly contact with Italy and elsewhere, was unquenchably proud of national musical style and custom.

The evening delved into two essentially opposed aspects of Spanish attitude and mores. That hauntingly evocative late arrival in the Old Testament, the “Song of Songs” — Shira Shirim — always incited an uneasy spiritual fervor among church folk, no doubt contributing a controversial quaver to the authoritatively disciplined voices of Iberian coros. The other facet of Blue Heron’s happily contrasting program, worldly Golden Age song, communicated forbidden sensuality and straightforward sexuality in the pages of numerous Italian-printed cancioneros and large circulating MS collections of villancicos. The evening’s themes, then, were ensemble declamations of enchantment, adoration of a womanly and yet ideal Virgen, and innocently immoderate admiration of fleshly charms.

All three instrumentalists joined Blue Heron for big, opulent Latin Song of Song settings by Francisco Guerrero, Sebastián de Vivanco, and Tomás Luis de Victoria. Elsewhere in western Europe, this period and style were the uncontested domain of a cappella ensembles. The ravishing subtlety and clarity of the distinctively Spanish Renaissance practice of choral accompaniment are seductive. Not surprisingly, the instruments were as notable in their absences as in their playing. The arpa doble, for instance, imparted a distinctive, yet consciously unassertive ictus to the starts of lines and of certain vertical moments. This served their clarity and forward rhythmic motion admirably.

Peter Sykes’s masterful playing of one of the well-traveled chamber organs by Bennett & Giuttari (Westerly, RI) was entirely at the service of score and choir and never strayed from his role of adding gentle weight and occasional upsurging ensemble dynamics. In much the same vein, ever-admirable bassoonist Marilyn Boenau lavished her hallmark precision and refinement upon her reticent part in some scores, subjugating her presence to an overall choral context. Her bajón, a smallish Renaissance double reed that physically resembles the other low-pitched members of this family, offered pointed commentary, alla Dulzian, only once, in Francisco Guerrero’s swirling evocation of Trahe me post te, virgo Maria (“Draw me in your wake, Virgin Maria”). Otherwise, like Mr. Sykes, Ms. Boenau offered only as a completion — a firming up, if you will — of text and choral line. To complete this supportive triumvirate in best Spanish fashion, harpist Becky Baxter brought delicacy to her four too-brief solos and to her presence within reduced vocal ensembles and a few larger choral works. She played the arpa doble, a visually commanding instrument whose extensive repertoire and potent expressivity Andrew Lawrence-King made famous in the ‘90s on a couple of striking Hyperion albums. Two ranks of gut strings march up the instrument’s frame in near-parallel planes, enabling the player to deftly access accidentals, and thus enjoy virtually chromatic harmonic freedom. (The more familiar Italian Renaissance arpa doppia is essentially the same instrument; on it, too, Mr. Lawrence-King has issued authoritative recordings.)

As I mentioned, the Guerrero Trahe me was an expressive high point of a very fine concert. What few solos soared briefly out of the often tight ensemble writing fell to Daniela Tosic, whose sonorous and effortlessly agile alto is an adornment all over Boston, and to the immaculate tone production and textual projection of tenor Jason McStoots. A choice handful of villancicos, the Spanish madrigal of the 16th through early 18th centuries, for three, four, and five singers were brilliant, sinewy silver marquetry gleaming among a rich-hued mahogany expanse of the formal Latin art music. We heard enough of Juan Vásquez’s sizable output (on both faces of the passion coin) to take careful note of him and to look for his music in the future. Two gorgeous and quite unalike motets by Tomás Luis de Victoria, in shoulder-rubbing proximity with sensual villancicos à 4, made strong impressions.

No Blue Heron, or Convivium Musicum, program booklet fails to inform the reader fully and engagingly. Scott Metcalfe’s meticulously researched and referenced annotations provide not just the nuts and bolts of full scholarship but also a genuinely readable, literate evocation of the music’s milieu and spirit. The writing initially demands that a reader invest his full attention. Once well begun, Mr. Metcalfe’s heartfelt notes simply pull one along. They’ve become as much a part of the rich Blue Heron experience as the ensemble’s impeccable musicianship.

The acoustics of First Church support middle and upper ranges of sound well, but this generous room doesn’t propagate bass and lower middle pitches (8’ and 16’, in organ terms) effectively. One can indeed hear the bottom ranges, but they come across at a lower level than upper pitches do. To be visceral in this enjoyable and beautifully lit concert venue, bass must essentially be over-produced, and this was simply not possible for Blue Heron’s concert. Once I had dialed in my ears, often a longish process in that room, the full spectrum of sound was indeed there to be heard.

The same windy demons that were busily headlining in Rhode Island and New York that evening thoroughly doused the audience and blew them about as they struggled to arrive. I suspect, though, that when listeners and musicians alike re-emerged into those broomstick-upending elements, all were still warmed by the incomparably seductive sun of Blue Heron’s Golden Age Spain.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

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