Early music from Australia? Yes, they have that now. The continent’s highest-profile original instruments players belong to the ensemble La Compañia. On the latest CD we travel in our thoughts from Spain and Portugal of the 16th century with the conquistadors to South America, the ‘New World’. Numerous other ensembles on the scene have already cultivated this musical repertoire, but one seldom hears it as fresh and played with such musicality.
von Claus Fischer
MDR – Germany
Australians explore music from Renaissance Iberia
La Compañia is one of Australia’s finest and best-known early music ensembles and Iberian music has already been in evidence in its repertiore (a previous disc on ABC is entitled ‘El fuego’). This is a collection of songs by Iberian composers having some Portuguese connection, energetically performed by a group including brass, woodwind, bowed and plucked strings and percussion, but that should not lead the listener to imagine a ‘Renaissance orchestra’ using an array of instruments just for the sake of it; scorings here are delicate and chosen with care. As a consequence, there is some lovely solo and duo playing from the nine members of the ensemble.
I am particularly pleased to see the inclusion of a number of works by the Portuguese Gaspar Fernandes, who worked in Guatemala and Mexico, and whose splendid, rhythmically energetic villancicos (which make frequent use of Creole and even Nahuatl) lend themselves naturally to the kind of vivid performances found here. The recording benefits hugely from the presence of the clarity and energy of soprano Siobhan Stagg: if her Portuguese pronunciation in the anonymous ‘Nao tragais borzeguis pretos’ is only a trifle eccentric (as is her Spanish elsewhere), more important is her infectious enthusiasm. Curiously, the (instrumental) performance of Machado’s ‘Dos estrellas le siguen’ is the slowest I have ever heard: it works beautifully but is somehow transformed into a gorgeously ornamented funeral lament.
This recording, engineered and produced by Thomas Grubb at the Catholic Church of St Fidelis, Moreland, is beautifully clear, with just enough reverberation to make both voice and instruments gleam.
Iberia desde las antípodas
Ecos ibero-coloniales por los australianos de La Compañía
This publication takes us to the period in which Portugal became part of the Spanish crown and many of its composers undertook their work in Spanish territories of the old and new worlds. As well as these, there are works by Guerrero and Milan. The general tone of the repertoire is festive, with secular villancicos and sacred villanescas. Of the vocal works included in the disc, half are transcribed for instruments.
Various anonymous pieces from the Cancioneiro de Paris, 1523, compiled by Pedro Escobar, are new in this recording: villancicos of the Iberian court with the typical alternation of triple and duple time bars. We meet three villanescas by Guerrero, with their rich contrasts of rhythm and texture, two of which are performed instrumentally. Gaspar Fernandes worked as organist and maestro de cappella in the cathedral of Guatemala and, later, in Puebla. His are neo-hispanic villancicos, often based in vernacular languages, which are performed instrumentally. Manuel Machado, of Lisbon, worked for most of his life in the Spanish royal chapel. His compositions are polyphonic canciones for more than two voices and they are notable for their rhythmic richness and expressiveness. In fact one of the most beautifully performed works on the disc, endowed with great solemnity, is a transcription of Dos estrellas le siguen. Though from an earlier period, Pedro de Escobar also spent his career in Spain, while Pedro de Cristo is the only composer on the disc who never left his homeland.
This recording comes to us from Australia, which could create a certain prejudice – a dreadful mistake! La Compañía is formed from instruments typical of bands of travelling players, with cornetto, dulcian, sackbuts, vihuela, viola da gamba and percussion, and has been concentrating on this repertoire for several years. The result is some truly notable instrumental passages and a refined approach to this music, and a mastery of the festive and solemn registers. There is percussion throughout the recording, but it never comes across as strange. The soprano Siobhan Stagg has a lovely voice and handles the complicated Iberian rhythms with flying colours. It is clear that she has worked on the pronunciation, which is not without faults but in the circumstances is very acceptable. A praisworthy disc from the Antipodes.
Manuel de Lara
AY, CARAMBA, THEY’RE GOOD!
Intrepid Aussies journey from Spain to the New World
Under their director Danny Lucin, La Compañia perform these works on period wind instruments such as cornetti, sackbuts and dulcians, as well as the viola da gamba, vihuela, guitar, cavaquinho and percussion. Joining them is young Australian soprano and early music exponent Siobhan Stagg, winner of the 2012 Australian International Opera Award. Throughout, La Compañia’s relaxed and improvisatory yet passionate and precise playing is a delight, recalling the best of Hesperion XXI, The Harp Consort and L’Arpeggiata in similar repertoire. Listen to the rich textures of De Cristo’s Ay mi Dios, the grand, sombre march in Machado’s Dos estrellas le siguen, and the wild strumming and percussion in the anonymous Nao tragais borzeguis pretos. These contrast with more intimate vocal and instrumental items, such as the gentle Dipues vienes delhaldea and Yan am quero ser pastora (both anonymous) and the great Spanish vihuelist Luis Milán’s well-known Fantasia VIII, performed with exquisite delicacy of touch by Rosemary Hodgson, who elsewhere provides wonderfully percussive accompaniments. Impressive, too, is Lucin’s smooth, sometimes even jazzy cornetto playing and Stagg’s lively, often cheeky interpretations. With her light, flexible yet darkly-centred soprano she proves herself a veritable Antipodean Montserrat Figueras. Fernandes’s Botay fora, with which the recording ends, features Stagg at her most refined, soaring over the rhythmic thunder of a solo side drum before luxuriating in various combinations of drum, winds and harpsichord. “Forget the deep sorrow,” she sings, “No need to pray by the cradle/because I will sing you a song/to enlighten the world.” And indeed, all one’s sorrows are swept away. Brava!
Pleasing, evocative performances of a charming and haunting repertoire.
In the 16th century Portugal was one of the leading nations of the world as far as exploration was concerned and indeed in the Sciences as well as the Arts. As Michael McNab’s well set- out and clear booklet notes tell us, in August 1578 King Sebastiao I was killed in battle along with most of the nobility. As a consequence Portugal was annexed into the Iberian Kingdom of Spain under Philip II. Many of country’s indigenous artists vanished into the South American kingdoms. Others became part of a conservative backwater, continuing to compose in the ‘stile antico’, as did Pedro de Cristo as heard on Hyperion CDA66512 Masterpieces of Portuguese Polyphony.
This CD does not consist of sad music reflecting on past glories. Hispanic syncopated rhythms, flexible and dance-like and especially associated with South American church music, can be heard on this CD. They are helped on their way with a liberal presence of colourful percussion. Other groups have successfully tackled this repertoire as well. I especially like another Hyperion disc recorded by Ex Cathedra, Fire Burning in Snow (CDA67600) but there are any number of other possibilities.
Of the seventeen tracks providing the somewhat measly playing time offered, only eight are for the gorgeous voice of Siobhan Stagg – very pure, versatile and rich. Despite her Irish name she, like this excellent group – La Compañia – are Australian and are making a name for themselves in that country in the early music world. Despite that however several pieces which could have had sung text of the type found in Machado’s beautiful Dos estrella le siguen have the substitute of Danny Lucin’s cornetto playing. This is the next best thing to the human voice as it was often said at the time, especially when the instrument is played so musically and with such beautifully shaped phrasing. Even better is when both Lucin (who directs the ensemble) and Stagg mix as in Escobar’s Pásame per Dios. He breaks up the six verses with a solo passage and then for the second half plays a descant over the voice. A down-side to Stagg’s performance is that although I am no real expert her Portuguese does not seem to be especially clear and her Spanish, which I know much more of, is distinctly inconsistent. That said, I loved her voice and have twice gone to sleep with her and it, as it were, ringing in my ears on a stereo unit in the room.
Let me select a few other favourite highlights. There is some lovely solo wind section playing throughout. I especially enjoyed Guerrero’s Niño Dios d’amor herido. It’s often the anonymous songs that felt so pleasing largely because they are simple and affecting. Their folk-like melodies have an instant attraction. In this category I would place Yan am quero ser pastora which speaks of Titian-style lovers placed in a lovely idealised pastoral locale. This song is in fact a villancico, a very popular form that can be used for sacred or secular compositions. The form is “generally ABA with several stanzas” (McNab) “but which display a good deal of flexibility … in how often the refrain is used”. A good example is another lovely anonymous pastoral setting Dispues vienes delhaldea.
There is five-part villancico by the still all-too-little-known, but rather original, Gaspar Fernandes entitled Tieycantimo chocquiliya which uses a creole text. Note the snazzy Lombardic rhythms reminding us that some of this music was heard outside church for dancing and dramatic entertainments and at festivals like Christmas. This piece is played instrumentally as is Fernandes’ Xicochi conetzintie which is the Nauhati language of the south American Nahua peoples. Pity we don’t get to hear this unusual language in performance. As in the previous piece, percussion is strongly used as are instruments like the cavaquinho. The group also add the related vihuela and/or a guitar. Wind instruments are employed as they were at the time even in church. These include the sackbut and dulcian which is a sort of bassoon which was especially popular.
The booklet and the disc are within a compact cardboard casing with that excellent essay. Composer biographies and photos are present and correct as well as texts that are well translated into English alongside the original. The recording is clear and intimate and well balanced. Good fun throughout.
MusicWeb International – Recording of the Month
We’re pretty lucky in Melbourne to have access to musicians of this calibre. Although we’re about to lose Siobhan Stagg to the UK for a while, you can hear this Melbourne born virtuosic soprano on the latest disc from early music group, La Compania. When listening to this disc, the word that popped into my head was ‘groovy’. In every track there’s a terrific groove that gets your toe tapping, even on the more lyrical songs. This is a seriously good disc that is well worth repeated listens.
Readings – Top Classical Recordings 2012
This wonderful disc is a real departure for the early music community in Australia. Few performers have ever attempted to commit to disc this very adventurous and challenging Spanish repertoire. Sara Macliver’s silvery soprano is ideally suited to it, though, and her colleagues in La Compañia support her admirably. The group’s founders Danny Lucin and Mitchell Cross have created a group which ventures into almost unchartered waters for Australian early music performers, and the results are something they can be proud of.
ABC FM CD of the week
This gifted group of early-music experts, directed by Danny Lucin, performs on period instruments or reconstructions. Sackbuts, cornetti, dulcians, viols, vihuela and Sara Macliver’s soprano combine to give a brilliant recreation of instrumental and vocal music by Willaert, Merulo, Guerrero and Anonymous. Right from the opening chaconne, La Compañia sets a high standard in accuracy and shaping on these treacherous instruments, taking the listener on a romance-flavoured tour, winding up with the title track, a semi-religious, semi-dance piece memorable for its juxtaposition of the temporal and the spiritual. A memorable ABC Classics release.
In El Fuego, the Australian group La Compañia performs another CD of loud and soft consort music, this time from Spain and Italy. The opening Chacona: A la vida bona by Juan Arañés (d c.1649) captures La Compañia’s delight in the interesting phraseology that this music invites, emphatic hemiolas in this instance, and their seductive use of percussion-castanets here. The unification of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and the riches from the discovery of the New World led to an increase in wealth and patronage mirrored in the growth of musicians employed; instrumental groups were employed in cathedrals, typically cornetts, shawms, trombones and dulcian. Francisco Guerrero, maestro di capella at Seville, is represented by two exquisite villancicos de navidad- which were commonly performed in the cathedral porch as a Christmas diversion. In A un niño llorano, describing the Christ child crying in the freezing cold, La Compañia does not shy away from orchestrating in a musically satisfying manner on the pretext of lack of specific evidence; thus it opens with voice with plucked accompaniment, to which is added strings and then brass. The disc takes its title from the extended concluding item-El Fuego by Mateo Flecha, which juxtaposes markedly contrasting moods: lively rhythmic dances with more reflective sections. In this piece and throughout the disc, the excellent soprano Sara Macliver captures the contrasting rhetoric of the words with consummate skill.
The balletto L’innamorato, published in Venice by the Italian, Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, became an international bestseller, reprinting over 30 times, and strongly influenced the ballets of Thomas Morley. La Compañia performs it with vocal verses interspersed with instrumental ritornellos decorated with copious light-hearted divisions. Italians linked to St Mark’s feature strongly with music by Adrian Willaert-who was maestro di cappella between 1527 and 1562-his pupil Nicola Vincentino and Claudio Merulo, who was the first organist from 1564. Throughout this disc variety is maintained by a carefully orchestrated approach. Anything with a dance element is given percussion to add colour; this is used imaginatively even including the ‘clutch and ring’ effect on the triangle derived from late 20th-century populist music in the anonymous Ben venga maggio.
Oxford Journals Robinson L, The Spice of Life Early Music.2008; 36,3: 482-485
La Compañia was established in 1997, with Danny Lucin and Mitchell Cross as its musical directors. Based in Melbourne, and drawing on a number of Australian instrumentalists specialising in early music, La Compañia has worked pretty extensively in concerts and festivals in Australia. This is the band’s second CD; the first – which I haven’t heard – issued in 2000, was Music of the Spanish Renaissance (Move Records MD 3225). That CD presumably had a somewhat narrower focus than this second CD, a relatively loosely conceived anthology.
On seven of the nineteen tracks, the soprano voice of Sara Macliver is featured. She sings with a kind of pert charm in the anonymous ‘Niña y viña’ and uses the top of her voice with great purity in Manuel Machado’s delightful ‘Dos estrellas le siguen’ which, with its relatively minimal accompaniment is a lovely contrast to the very busy music surrounding it on many of the other tracks. In the lengthy piece which gives the CD its title, ‘El fuego’ by Matheo Flecha, the elder, she handles the changing moods very effectively, though perhaps neither she nor the instrumentalists of La Compañia quite persuade us of the intensity with which the fires of sin burn in the opening of Flecha’s but at the piece’s conclusion she sings radiantly of the saving ‘pure water’ of the incarnate Christ.
As an instrumental ensemble, La Compañia can offer a rich palette of colours and tones. Danny Lucin brings an attractive vocal quality (without exaggeration) to much of his work on the cornetto; the sackbuts of Glenn Bardwell and Bob Collins are played throughout with precision and appropriate power. Rhythms are lively and properly insistent – not least in the suite of anonymous dance music, compiled from a variety of Florentine sources, which draws on popular songs such as ‘Ben venga maggio’ and ‘En questo ballo’.
It is good to hear Pedro Guerrero’s remarkable ‘La perra mora’, with its metre of 5/2, which and Antonio de Cabezón’s version of Maistre Gosse’s ‘Je fille quant dieu me donne de quoy’, both of which elicit some expressive playing from all concerned.
Indeed, there’s nothing here that isn’t well worth the hearing. If I have a reservation it is the miscellaneous nature of the programme, in which it is hard to discern real continuities or patterns of development. Good as Michael McNab’s booklet notes are, they don’t really persuade one that there is any very precise unifying factor in the proceedings. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be like that. If you simply want a miscellany of solo vocal and instrumental music from sixteenth century Spain and Italy this would be a pretty enjoyable one to have.
La Compañia is set to broaden the horizons of early music in Australia with their exciting new CD, Music of the Spanish Renaissance. Featuring the expressive voice of soprano Vivien Hamilton and a variety of period instruments including cornetto, shawms, recorder, sackbuts, vihuela and percussion. Generously filled with seventeen tracks, this recording pays tribute to some of the great Spanish composers of the period and captures the joyful spirit of the 16th century minstrel band. The music is rhythmic, colourful, exciting and above all, spontaneous!
A feast for the ears
Sunday Herald Sun
The music is extremely attractive … helps you set the scene of drums, sackbuts and cornetts … The playing seems confident, assured and competent… If you find that they are performing near you I would strongly recommend a concert outing
ABC 24 Hours
this CD is well worth buying . there are some great tunes on this disc that cover a wide range of feeling . to hear any of these instruments played at this level is a real treat
Australian Trombone Journal
much rhythmic excitement is created by the wonderful percussion and improvisational inspirations of other players . many timbres are used . a fresh sonority to me.
Early Music Society of Victoria
A thumping good recording. Buy one
Early Music News, NSW
The appeal of the music is high … the musical preparation is thorough and the recording well-balanced and forward.
Sydney Morning Herald
an excellent ensemble performing an unusual and beautiful repertoire … I heartily recommend that you buy yourself a copy
Early Music Queensland
an attractive mix … the performances here are a constant delight … a gem of a recording