French Musicians Bring Vividly to Life the Music of Spain’s Golden Age

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Luis de Briceño: Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre (conductor, guitar), Claire Lefilliâtre (soprano), Isabelle Druet (mezzo-soprano), Mira Glodeanu (violin), Lucas Peres (viol), Françoise Enock (violone), Marie Bournisien (harp), Thomas Boysen (guitar), Thor-Harald Johnsen (guitar), Joël Grare (percussion)

Luis de Briceño – Españoleta, ‘Ay ay ay, todos se burlan de mi’, ‘Que tenga yo a mi mujer’
Anon. – ‘El baxel esta en la playa’, ‘Lloren mis ojos’
Francisco Berxes – ‘Ay! Qué rabia’
Luis de Briceño – ‘Andalo çaravanda’
Anon. – Ruggiero, Passacalle, Gaytas
Luis de Briceño –‘Danza de la Hacha’
Anon. – ‘Para tener Nochebuena’
Luis de Briceño – ‘Venteçillo murmurador’, ‘Ay amor loco’
Anon. – ‘No so yo’ (Cancionero de Uppsala)
Luis de Briceño – ‘El caballo del marqués’
Anon. – Canario
Luis de Briceño – Folia, ‘Dime de que te quexas’

Luis de Briceño isn’t a household name, even among guitar aficionados.  But this Spanish guitarist, music theorist and composer is now considered responsible for the introduction of the Spanish guitar style in France – in the face of condescension from French courtiers and musicians for whom only the lute was deemed a ‘noble’ plucked instrument and for whom the guitar was too vulgar to charm refined ears.  Extant documents – in 1614 one of his sonnets was inserted into the work of a Gascon lord named Moulère, and it is recorded that Briceño’s French wife, Anne Gaultier, bore him two sons, in 1622 and 1627 – suggest that the guitarist was active during the period 1610-30 approximately.

But despite the paucity of historic information it is to Briceño – and more specifically his Método mui facilissimo para aprender y tañer la guitarra a lo español­, which was published in Paris by Pierre Ballard in 1626 – that the musicologist or performer seeking to know more about, and to recreate, the art of popular song as it was practised in 17th-century Spain must turn.  While sacred music and polyphonic vocal music of the age of Cervantes is plentiful, examples of everyday music sung at home, in barber shops, in the theatres and taverns are scant.  Briceño’s treatise thus offers an intriguing path into the popular Spanish guitar-song repertoire during a period when the instrument was ubiquitous.

However, interpreting Briceño’s account is a challenge: there are no melodies or precise rhythmic indications, the typography is at times puzzling and there appear to be errors in the notation, perhaps a result of the French printer’s unfamiliarity with the Spanish language.  There are guitar chords, placed precisely above the lyrics, but they employ an unusual numerical system – possibly so as not to confuse French lutenists more accustomed to letter-based tablature.  Vertical strokes seem to indicate rhythmic values but are not consistent or readily interpretable.  Some songs are unique to the Método (a facsimile edition of which was published by Minkoff Reprint in 1972) and their melodies may be forever lost to us; but comparison with other sources can give rise to plausible performing versions of these texts.

This preamble is a rather lengthy introduction to the scholarly and practical work undertaken by guitarist Vincent Dumestre whose painstaking research culminated in a 2011 recording by Dumestre’s ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, of Briceño’s music.  One MusicWeb International reviewer described this Alpha-label disc, a Recording of the Month, as ‘absolutely fascinating’, ‘one of the most original and exciting discs I have heard recently’.

Hearing Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique perform a selection of Briceño’s songs and dances, along with other anonymous pieces of the period, it was obvious that the success of Dumestre’s work reflects not only his meticulous detective work as a musicologist but also his intuitive insight as an improvising performer.  Unobtrusively but assuredly leading his musicians through this sparkling, varied programme, he demonstrated a penetrating recognition of the music’s essential rhythmic spirit and pulse, a ‘soul’ which is imbued with sensuality but which, in contradiction to the sneering snobs of 17th-century France, is never without eloquence.  Every gesture of this performance was finely shaped and carefully placed, yet never at the expense of spontaneity and alertness.

The songs were performed by two singers: soprano Claire Leffiliâtre and mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet.  Leffiliâtre made the higher-lying melodic lines soar, adding virtuosic ornaments that flashed vibrantly but did not detract from the strong core of the vocal phrasing.  Druet exhibited both a wonderfully rich lower register and a bright timbre at the top, showing incredible vocal ease.  Both singers conveyed the drama – whether of love or loss, gaiety or grief – which is the fire burning within these songs.

The asymmetry of the entwining two vocal lines in ‘Ay, ay, ay, todos se burlan de mí’ (Oh, oh, oh, they all make fun of me – possibly a nod towards Briceño’s French deriders) coupled with the edginess of the castanet and the dynamism pulsing from the violone created great rhetorical energy, while the interactions between all the musicians conveyed the vibrant impulsiveness of an informal social gathering.

A contrasting soulfulness characterised Druet’s subsequent ‘Que tenga yo a mi mujer’ (That I should take care of my wife), and the singer displayed a remarkable ability to apply tension and relaxation to the voice to convey the sentiments of the text.  Even if we had not had the printed texts available to tell us of what the song told, we would have felt the emotions of which Druet sang.  Her performance of ‘Ay, qué mal!  Ay que rabia!’ (Oh, what pain! Oh, what rage!) was operatic in intensity and dimension; the chromatic vocal lines seethed and suffered as the protagonist’s ‘unhappy heart burn[ed], oh heavens!’

Leffiliâtre’s robust rhythms and clarity of diction enhanced the anonymous song, ‘El baxel está en la playa’ (The boat is on the strand); the protagonist’s heightened emotion in the final stanza – ‘if you have been betrayed, you need only have courage when you hear the cry: Ay, ay, ay …’ – was evoked by a slight stiffening of the voice, but the pressing urgency of the tone did not detract from the silkiness of the delivery.  Leffiliâtre’s performance of ‘Venteçillo murmurador’ (Murmuring little wind) was wonderfully poised, the absence of vibrato and well-focused sound imbuing the brief lyric with sincerity as the soft strumming of the guitars beguilingly evoked the sound of the breeze in the leaves of the elm tree.

The duet ‘Lloren mis ojos’ (Weep, weep, my eyes) recalled the madrigalian pictorialism, harmonic heart-pulling, declamatory impact and elaborate continuo commentaries of Monteverdi.  The text’s images were further sharpened by the interpolations of violin, bass viol and harp.  An injection of pace in the central verse, followed by the restraining effect of the low string chords in the ensuing inter-verse instrumental commentary enhanced the theatricality of the song.  The unaccompanied ‘No so[y] yo quien veis vivir’ (It is not I you see living), a cancionero from Uppsala, was strikingly sparse and showcased Druet’s dark low voice.  The three guitars were a mischievous accompaniment to Briceño’s ‘El cavallo del marqués’ (The maquis’s horse), Leffiliâtre joining her mezzo partner at the accelerating close as if to urge the ‘lame, maimed and bob-tailed’ mount onwards.

The songs were interspersed with instrumental items of infinitely varied hues as the musicians moved with alacrity between well-defined moods, skilfully exploiting both texture and harmonic piquancy.  Mira Glodeanu demonstrated an astonishing ability to manipulate and coax her violin’s tone and colour.  The violinist opened the first item, Briceño’s Españoleta and her initially gentle then increasingly firm tone enticed the engagement of a guitar, then bass viol, until the rhythmic vibrancy was as infectious as the players’ smiles.  Glodeanu’s effortless, breath-taking virtuosity and musicianship in Briceño’s ‘Folia’ – her bow scurried and leapt with bite and shine – won her warm, admiring applause … and a curtain-call flower, plucked from the Wigmore Hall platform flower-arrangement by percussionist Joël Grare!

Three contrasting instrumental dances placed the rich strumming and melodic interplay of the three guitars (in a Ruggiero) alongside the spectral plucking, above a drone, of a Passacalle; the latter’s eerie disquiet was brusquely swept aside by a Gaytas which burst into life with presence and rhythmic firmness; the whole-ensemble pizzicato conjured a strange, wild energy.

To see the bass viol turned on its side and plucked like a guitar, to see a drum played by the percussionist’s legs and feet, to enjoy the guitarists’ shared grins … every aspect of this performance was such a treat.  A charming percussive sway, at first languid then with added swagger, cajoled the music gently into the flourish and spirit of ‘Andalo zarabande’ (Come on, Sarabande) and the nimble vocal lines made literal dancers of the singers.  The castanets added an frisson of tense anticipation to the anonymous ‘Para tener Nochebuena’ (To celebrate Christmas Night), as Leffiliâtre’s rhythmically unpredictability vocal line seemed to chase itself in entwining threads through the high register, fading to a consoling silence at the close: ‘Lindo, bueno, Bueno, lindo …’ (For He is noble and He is good …).

We have often glimpsed the music of Spain through French eyes.  Works such as Bizet’s Carmen and Chabrier’s España capture the French fascination with the soundscapes of Spain.  Debussy and Ravel created their own ‘musical Spains’.  In this technically excellent performance, Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique – their sombre black attire warmed with splashes of crimson and orange –revealed a further Gallic perspective on the music of Spain – and in so doing illuminated a repertoire that is rare, surprising and exquisite.

Claire Seymour


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