A Hispanic and Germanic journey

STUART MILLSON travels from Moorish Spain to Beethoven’s more-ish Mass

Newly minted by the imaginative Meridian CD label comes a recording which is best played, late in the evening – on a warm night – with a glass of Rioja to hand and candlelight flickering in the corner of your room. In the absence of real Iberian surroundings, the disc – From Al Andalus to the Americas – takes the listener from the times of the Moorish domination of Spain from the eighth century, to the fall of Granada in 1492 to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and eventually the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the era of composers Granados, Turina and the Argentinian, Ginastera. 

The motivating force for and on the recording is the acclaimed American soprano, Christine Moore Vassallo, whose mother, of Arab-Levantine ancestry, inspired the singer to delve into the richly-textured, heady, overlapping mix of Muslim, Spanish, folk, religious, pastoral music and lamentations – fanned, like seeds in the air, to the New World, but rooted in the hills and gardens of Al-Andalus (the name for Spain during Umayyad rule). For this Meridian recording, Christine’s collaborators are Philip Arditti – an expert in Sephardi culture and an exponent of Darbuka, Riqq and Frame drums, Rachel Beckles Wilson, a writer and composer who is one of the West’s foremost authorities on the music of the oud, the guitar virtuoso, Pablo Gimenez, flautist Anthony Robb, and the Spanish pianist, Jorge Robaina. Each musician contributes to this fascinating hour-long time-travel through the history of the Iberian peninsula.

An anonymous pre-15th century piece begins the journey – Lamma bada yatathanna – from a poetic genre of the Arab language which appeared in the tenth century. The song, though, is ageless, describing a gentleman’s interest in the ‘swaying hips’ of a woman, and bemoaning his malady of love. Sephardic songs then follow (arranged in 1975 by Manuel Valls), leading on to three anonymous 15th to 17th century items, collected by the poet, Lorca (1898-1936) Canciones antiguas espanoles; the first ballad, Las morillas de Jaen, telling the tale of three Moorish girls, converts to Christianity, gathering olives and apples on dusty terraces, but earning, too, admiring glances from a nearby farmer. The Iberian climate clearly inspires ‘youth, mirth and warm desire’…

In Canciones del Jardin Secreto, a composer of modern times, Anton Garcia Abril (1933-2021) sets old Arab texts, including the lament of Boabdil (or Abdullah, the last Moorish king) for his lost fortress of Alhambra:

‘Longed-for Alhambra, your castles are weeping

About what happened to me, Lord Abu-Abdullah

Give me my stallion and white blade

And let us go and take back the Alhambra…’

The collection ends with the colours and magic of Ginastera’s Five popular Argentinian songs; taking us to the New World; to the frontiers of the Latin civilisation founded by trade, exploration, conquest, yet tinged and underpinned by the cadences of a culture – that of Islam and the Moors – which itself formed one of the world’s mighty empires.

Gustav Blaeser’s 1840 model for a never-made monument to Beethoven

Finally, by way of complete contrast, we travel to a mediaeval church in the ancient kingdom of Kent (the land now criss-crossed by motorways, the pilgrims in shorter supply) to a performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C major, given by the powerful forces of the 70-strong East Malling Singers – Kent’s large-in-scale, large-in-ambition ‘amateur’ choral society. Able to attract exceptionally fine instrumental accompanists and accomplished soloists, the Singers (conducted by Ciara Considine, with organist, Nick Bland) patiently rehearse their repertoire for many gruelling weeks – a repertoire that typically includes Masses by Haydn, the occasional Handel oratorio, uplifting anthems and hymns by Parry and Vaughan Williams. 

At first, the regular concertgoer and buyer of CDs might pause before considering a non-professional performance of a Beethoven Mass. But such reticence would be a mistake, because here – like an amateur orchestra tackling Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony – we enjoy the pleasure of hearing the rush of adrenaline of aspiring artists, our fellow human beings, activating every sinew in the cause of doing their very best. And in the wide acoustic of the Church of St. James the Great, the rising swell of sound in Beethoven’s opening Kyrie is just as satisfying for any true music-lover, as if you had just ventured into a Deutsche Grammophon recording studio. With a reverential Bruckner motet as an extra item on the CD, how could you resist?

CD details: From Al-Andalus to the Americas, Meridian, CDE 84647

Beethoven, Mass in C Major. A private recording, but for further details contact Mrs. Elaine Gordon of East Malling Singers,www.eastmallingsingers.co.uk