Friday, March 25, 2011

Musica Catalana

We went last night to an extraordinary early music concert. We're on holiday in Barcelona, and we found that Jordi Savall, the great viola da gamba player and founder of Hesperion XXI, was giving what we think was the first performance in 400 years of a 1611 Barcelona Vespers!

The concert had us a little confused -- we went to the wrong venue, but got to the right one in time to settle in for the concert, though not in the best seats. It was in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, where the seafaring Barcelonans used to hope for safe trips and give thanks on coming home. It's a gorgeous, austere, Gothic church from the 15th century, I think.

The concert was the Vespers of the feast of St. George (San Jordi, in Catalan), from 1611, which Savall, I believe, transcribed and arranged for choir and wind and viol bands, from a manuscript. St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia (the district/nation of whcih Barcelona is the capitol). Here we were in Catalonia, with a program booklet in Catalonian (we are just learning to read Catalonian, which is like looking at French through a Spanish glass), hearing a Catalonian piece from a MS in the Catalonian National Library, performed by great Catalonian musicians!

The piece itself reminded me of Praetorius: some homophonic elements, a lot of cool dance rhythms, and vigourous polyphony: clearly past the the quieter styles of Vittoria. Sometimes there were even "hymns" like the Germans might have written. It wasn't Monteverdi, no solos, no duets, not the "second pratica" of soloistic music that Monteverdi had brought in about the turn of the century.

I'm writing this on my new iPad in Barcelona, so I'm sorry the picture is too big: I can't quite figure out all the options!

There were wonderful rhythmic instrumental interludes, the two bands and the harp/organ continuo vying for control of the sound. The whole series of concerts, by the way, is called "El So Original" -- the primal sound, I think.

There were also wonderful percussion, drums, and either chimes or (I think - we were way far back) handbells.

Perhaps the most amazing thing was what the acoustics of the church did for and with the music. I usually prefer clean, crisp acoustics, but this was amazing. The church's space towers above the singers and instrumentalists. The reverb time is probably five full seconds, certainly three full tactus beats. So when the cadences happened, and the cornetto played a cadential trill, the trill notes sustained themselves all the way to the cadence on the tonic> The final chord, then, undulated, pulsed with dissonance while the overtones worked their way through the church spaces. There was no incense in the church, but this almost seemed an acoustic incence, a kind of smoke that blessed the sound, made it more complex, purified it through its dissonances until it finally settled in. Again and again. (BTW, the cornettist was the fabulous Basel-based Bruce Dickey, whom we met last year in Oberlin at the Baroque Performance Institute).