Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lone voices - Carlos Mena

This year, for the first time since I started the blog in 2005, I will not be posting personal previews of the BBC Proms, which start tomorrow evening (18 July). My decision is of no great importance as there is no shortage of coverage of the concerts elsewhere. The reason for dropping the previews is that I write best when I am passionate and enthusiastic about a subject, and, sadly, my passion for the Proms has failed to survive their remorseless corporate marketing as a BBC brand. For me at least, the message has been drowned out by the medium.

There are some very fine compositions and very fine performers in this year's Proms and I will be listening to some of them on BBC Radio 3 and maybe posting a few thoughts. But as the promotional hullabaloo reaches fever pitch let's reflect on the fact that the core values of the Proms, which are so celebrated today, date from 1895 when the Promenade concerts were founded by Sir Henry Wood. The BBC did not become involved in the running of the Proms until thirty-two years later, by which time the famous, and much-copied, format was well-established.

The BBC's subsequent stewardship of the Proms then suffered a two-year hiatus in 1940-1941 when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was evacuated and the concerts continued in London under the baton of Sir Henry Wood using private funding and without BBC involvement. In June 1944, to ensure the future of the Proms, Wood made over to the BBC in perpetuity the title 'Henry Wood Promenade Concerts' (it changed to the 'BBC Proms' decades later) and two months later the founder of the Proms was dead. Woods main motivation in passing the Proms title to the BBC was to guarantee their financial security. But things went pear-shaped again in 1980 when twenty concerts were lost from the Proms season as musicians went on strike following the BBC's ill-conceived attempt to save money by disbanding the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Great music has been made, and will continue to be made, at the Proms while under BBC management. But we should remember that for a third of the hundred plus year span of the concerts the BBC was not involved in their running. Those years included the key early period when the unique and priceless DNA of the concerts developed, and it would be a mistake to assume, without questioning, that the fragile DNA can survive the transition from national music festival to global multi-media brand.

I appreciate I may be a lone voice on this, although the Google ranking for An Overgrown Path suggests readers are sympathetic to my point of view, if not in agreement. But it's the music that matters, so to to celebrate other lone voices I will be running an occasional series of articles over the coming weeks featuring some musical loners who are not appearing at the 2008 BBC Proms. Back in 2006 I tried to answer the question 'what is a classic' by quoting scholar and poet Mark Van Doren's view that: 'A classic is a book that remains in print'. I don't claim the lone voices I am featuring are necessarily classics, but they have recorded CDs that I keep listening to. That's what this blog is about, not global multi-media brands. So here, on the left of the photo below, is my first lone voice.


Spanish countertenor Carlos Mena is, quite literally, a lone voice on my first featured CD. Et Jesum is a recital of polyphonic motets, antiphons, and mass sections by Tomás Luis de Victoria arranged for solo countertenor voice and accompanying laud (a Spanish lute) or vihuela. In their lifetimes the music of Victoria and other Renaissance composers was arranged for domestic performance and this Harmonia Mundi CD (sleeve below) uses a mixture of authentic period and modern arrangements.

The string accompaniments are expertly delivered by Juan Carlos Rivera (right of photo) who is joined on some tracks by Francisco Rubio Gallego whose cornet adds an almost contemporary feel to the music. The performers are beautifully captured by engineer Jean-Daniel Noir in la Iglesia Parroquial Sant Corneli de Collbató in Barcelona. The effect of these arrangements is very different to conventional symphonic and operatic reductions. The results are not miniature versions of Victoria's multi-part masterpieces. Instead they create a new sound-world which makes you listen to the originals with fresh ears. And that's what is so special about lone voices.


Find Tomás Luis de Victoria sung by American voices here.
Lone voices showcases music not featured in the 2008 BBC Proms, discover more lone voices here. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

2 comments:

Scott said...

Yet another interesting append, for two reasons.

I'm in Canada and have no experience with the Proms ... other than my late father's memories. He spent the second piece of his naval service during WW II as an officer on a corvette doing escort duty between Halifax and Liverpool. He was once in Liverpool at the right time with just enough leave between crossings to get down to London for a couple of the Proms concerts, including the "last night." He spoke with considerable fondness of the experience.

A question about your comments on the Victoria recording (which I believe I'll have to order) - your link for "laud" goes to this description - "The laúd is a plectrum plucked chordophone from Spain. It consists of twelve metallic strings (six double), as the bandurria, but the neck is longer than a bandurria. Traditionally it forms part of serenaders or folk string musical groups, together with the guitar and the bandurria."

This sounds like an unlikely instrument to be the sole accompaniment to a reduction of Victoria pieces. Certainly the instrument pictured is your usual 7-course renaissance lute. I wonder if the recording notes just used the word "laud" as a translation of lute.

Either such a lute or a vihuela would seem to be more reasonable choices for the accompaniment than the "laud" described in the linked article.

But as I say, I may discover this for myself as I'll probably order the recording.

Pliable said...

Scott, yet again the scholarship of my readers is ahead of my link checking integrity.

You are, of course, quite right. My 'laud' link is pointing at the wrong instrument.

Your scholarship is confirmed by the comprehensive Harmonia Mundi sleeve notes which detail Juan Carlos Rivera's instrument as a seven course instrument originally constructed by Peter Biffin in 1981and reworked by Francisco Hervás in 1998.

Apologies for the wrong link.

Here is a beautiful Peter Biffin lute -

http://www.ianwatchorn.com.au/7courselute-Biffin.htm