We had a wonderful time in Avila. It was a real milestone – Ariel Abramovich and I had talked for ages about exploring the intabulation repertoire and then a couple of years ago we got together with Anna Maria Friman and Jacob Heringman to record the Secret History album for ECM (due early next year); now we’ve finally made our live debut.
The centre-piece of the album is Victoria’s Surge propera mass (in our own version for two voices and two vihuelas) and we couldn’t have had a more appropriate occasion to do the first live performance than Abvlensis 2014, the third Victoria festival in the composer’s birthplace. Coincidentally, the Hilliard Ensemble were in residence and performed their In Paradisum programme (devised by Gordon Jones when I was still in the group), so the audience would first get to hear the ‘pure’ acappella way of doing renaissance polyphony and then our more secularised historical version with voices and instruments.
Although history tells us that in the renaissance our way of doing things was as common (if not more so) as unaccompanied choral performance, very few modern performers attempt it. The gap between (quiet) reconstructed instruments and (relatively loud) modern singing is just too great for an intimate performance where voices and lutes are supposed to be equally audible. Most of us can just about cope with, say, Monteverdi’s Vespers, as there can be plenty of instrumental support and however loud the singers are they’re less frightening than they were back in the 1970s. But who has ever heard a lutesong recital where voice and instrument balance as well as voice and piano in a Lieder recital? In renaissance ‘vocal’ polyphony where all the lines are of equal importance, trying to blend modern voices and old instruments is a very tricky task indeed.
So the concert wasn’t going to be easy, and if we didn’t get it right the audience would have found it impossible to listen to. It was actually one of the most frightening I’ve done for a long time. We were all incredibly nervous – the church had a crystal clear acoustic – perfect for this music but giving you no place to hide. It was our very first live performance and we have big plans for the future, so a lot was at stake. Crucially it was the first real test of whether Anna and I could balance to the vihuelas, Anna singing very low in her register and me trying out the much lighter technique needed for the ridiculous virtuosity of Bovicelli’s version of Victoria’s Vadam et Circuibo . The last thing we wanted was the typical lutesong scenario where you can’t hear the pluckers, and we needed to convince the audience that they weren’t getting a raw deal by hearing Victoria’s exquisite polyphony plundered by a bunch of early music avant-weirdos…
The result was almost all we could have wished for: the concept that we’d had in our heads for so long finally materialised. This was what it must have been like when musicians got together at the beginning of the 17th century to explore the very latest music in whatever way they could. It didn’t have the 21st century renaissance polyphony ‘purity’ – but you could hear (and almost feel) the clarity of the writing, and that mysterious partnership between dead composer and living performers. We loved it, and from the first nervous note we knew it would work; the very attentive audience did too, fortunately.
…and there’s another excellent review here.
A big thankyou to the festival team for giving us this opportunity – and for great hospitality. The festival is a major cultural event now in its third year and already raising the profile of one of Spain’s greatest composers (still unfortunately overshadowed in his home town by his more famous near-contemporary St Theresa). May it go from strength to strength.
Our next meeting as a quartet in in November, when we go to Rainbow Studios in Oslo to record Amores Pasados. This will be a yet another new adventure (you can find more details on the lutesongs page).