Out one door and in another

SPANISH CONNECTIONS      ***

La Compania

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 14

Giving its last recital at the MRC before moving next year to the glass-and-wood complex of Federation Square’s Deakin Edge, this estimable period-music ensemble  opted for an all-Hispanic program,  one that continually shot off in southern colonial directions. Director Danny Lucin’s cornetto and an instrumental septet played a few instruments-only pieces but much of Saturday evening’s recital consisted of sung material in which La Compania supported soprano Cristina Russo.

La Compañia (image: lacompania.com.au)

This was a mini-tour in 14 segments, some of them quite short, of Spanish music at home and in the American colonies which stretched from religious music of the early 16th century to Peruvian dances constructed close to the start of the 19th.  Of course, the physical provenance of the works was reflected in their categorization, religious and secular, with a fair mixture of both.  To all of it, the Companians gave their best with crisp attack and a rousing realization of this music’s rhythmic vehemence.

To begin, the players worked through some diferencias on an anonymous theme called Las Vacas; basically, a ground bass with elaborations on top  or around its progression which gave a sample of the sound-colours on offer: Lucin’s rapid bright line, Mitchell Cross’s all-purpose dulcian (a precursor of the bassoon), the supple sackbut ((early trombone) of Glen Bardwell, David Irving’s refined violin, and two supports in the gamba of Victoria Watts and Rosemary Hodgson’s alternating vihuela and guitar.  Icing on this particular cake came from percussionists Denis Close and Christine Baker, both prominent contributors throughout with drums, tambours, gourds, and eventually the inevitable castanets.

Russo’s pure timbre soon became a single strand in an anonymous Dennos lecencia senores, a cachua or round dance from Peru where the whole ensemble participated, not aggressively but making enough of a sonorous edifice to background all but a powerfully projected voice.  This overpowering also took place in a villancico by Antonio de Salazar, Seville-born but a Mexican composer.   His Tarara tarara qui yo soy Antoniyo continued the Christmas theme that ran through the program but, with both sackbut and dulcian out of the mix, Russo enjoyed more exposure, her clear timbre taking prime focus and the text became decipherable.

Two pieces by Gaspar Fernandes – born in Portugal but moved to Mexico and Guatemala – showed a lively invention, if also presenting the players with a real challenge in A belen me llego, tio with its punctuating syncopations that did not quite succeed in their effectiveness when essayed by an ensemble like this one with widely differing dynamic possibilities; from what I’ve heard, the piece works much better when singers – either individual or several to a line – are involved.

A brace of Francisco Guerrero pieces succeeded more satisfactorily, Russo enjoying the backing of Hodgson alone for the opening to Virgen Sancta, another Christmas villancico with a surprisingly mobile melody line.  Moving back to Peru c. 1780, the anonymous El Congo brought to mind a late Baroque mariachi band with bright triplets and an arrangement rich in upper reeds seasoned with a catchy percussion support.

Fernandes appeared further down the program with an Assumption song, Vaya, la princesa, vaya, which might have enjoyed more impact if the vocal line had not been doubled, as was the case in No hay mas dulce alegria where three instruments took on that duty in turn.   A return to the ambience of the night’s opening, Santiago de Murcia’s Los Imposibles is a passacalle which seems to follow the same bass as the Las Vacas tune.   More familiar to me in a guitar solo setting, this made comfortable listening thanks to some deft interwoven solos.   And to conclude, the company played yet one more Peruvian anonymity: Nino il mijor, another cachua of infectious if restrained jubilation at the presence of the Christ child.

Once more, La Compania here unveiled some treasures to which it brought a distinctive approach.  If the soprano was treated as just one thread in the group’s complex, at least she remained audible, even under some assertive, full-bore output from her colleagues.   Nevertheless, many factors generate delight when hearing this company, the most significant being its unique combination of finesse and spirit, especially when the ensemble girds up its loins for one last variant.  Now for a new home and three nights of further discoveries in 2016.