Luys MILÁN (c.1500-c.1561)
El Maestro Libro 1 (1536)
Fantasías de consonancias [17:25]
Fantasías de consonancias y redobles [23:53]
Fantasías de consonancias [13:29]
6 Pavanas [11:18]
José Antonio Escobar (vihuela da mano)
rec. 2014, The Green Room, Offord Hall, Aurora, Canada
NAXOS 8.573305 [65:48]
The vihuela is a renaissance forerunner of the guitar, and the earliest music for it that survives is this substantial set of pieces by Luys Milán. It was published in 1536 with the title Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El Maestro. Not much else is known for sure about this Luys Milán, beyond that he was active at the court of Valencia in the 1530’s. But so were two other men of the same name, and while the three were probably related to each other, there is still some uncertainty about which one was the composer of this music.
This first book of El Maestro contains twenty-eight works, set out in three groups of ‘Fantasias’ (nine, nine and six in each group) followed by six ‘Pavanas’. They are played on this disc in the same sequence in which they are printed in the volume. The name “El Maestro” (‘The Master’) suggests a teaching manual, as does the increasing difficulty of the pieces. Though if it is one it is hardly a primer since even the first item apparently assumes some skill on the instrument. All these pieces are short, playing from 1:19 to 4:02 but with only five of the twenty-eight being more than three minutes long. So we have here a collection of miniatures, the Fantasias in particular being very similar in character to one another, but with a gradually growing degree of elaboration.
Milán himself in the preface to El Maestro explains that the music in the book began as his own improvisations on his instrument, and only subsequently written down. The delightful opening of the Fantasia X (track 10) gives a real feel for this improvisatory style, not so uncommon of course in an era when improvisation was expected of many musicians, and for a solo instrumentalist not all that distant from the art of composing. The prevailing mood is courtly, as one might expect of a court musician, and the vihuela is of course a plucked instrument that speaks with a soft voice. The beauties of the music will not force themselves upon you, as say the soaring Spanish vocal polyphony of the era can do. To the unsympathetic ear, it might suggest no more than music heard as background to a scene in Blackadder. But to the enthusiast for the lute music, or even the consort music, of the high renaissance it will surely give much pleasure.
Not knowing this music, but being very pleased to get to know it, I must say I found it hard to imagine a more ingratiating performance than this one by the Chilean vihuelist José Antonio Escobar. The performances are all so clean, always precise in swift scales and complex figuration, and making light of the most elaborate passages. There is not a fingerboard squeak to be heard anywhere. The sound is nicely caught in a warm acoustic, close enough to feel intimate but not so close as to become wearying.
When William Congreve wrote that ‘Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’ this could well have been the sort of thing he had in mind. The concise and informative booklet note by John Griffiths is excellent, and it needs to be for this music will be relatively unfamiliar to many music lovers. Perhaps this Naxos issue, and the considerable skill of José Antonio Escobar, will change that.