From Al-Andalus to the Americas. © 2024 Meridian Records


Superb Performances

AMBER LIN and JEFFREY NEIL investigate Christine Moore Vassallo's journey through Spanish song

'Christine Moore Vassallo and her ensemble were a delight to experience.'


This album's vocalist, soprano Christine Moore Vassallo, has selected what she calls a 'musical odyssey', a collection of thirty-three songs in different styles, from different countries, and in three languages. What they share in common is that they all are connected to the Iberian Peninsula. They do not progress chronologically either; for instance, the last cycle is based on some of the oldest material - translated poems from eighth to ninth century Baghdad, the center of the Islamic Golden Age. This album is an ambitious endeavor, and no matter how familiar you are with Spanish or Latin American music, there will be at least something you have never heard. The album booklet is almost encyclopedic, offering a generous helping of useful history and musical context for each song, along with the original Spanish, Ladino or Arabic lyrics translated into English.

For somebody who wants to expand his musical repertoire and also learn about the complex interconnections between the music of Mediterranean cultures and various diasporas, this album is a must. Medieval Spanish texts are set to nineteenth-century Ottoman or contemporary Spanish music; the lyrics of old flamenco cante are arranged by García Lorca - who knew he was a musician too? - and there is even some Argentine folk music for good measure. The selection demonstrates the complexity of musical history - of cross-pollination of music from different parts of the world; and the vocalist reminds us of how music can breathe life into ancient texts. Christine Moore Vassallo and her accompanists have revivified these songs, and the performances are all superb.

The first track, When She Begins to Sway, was composed in the Middle Ages but set to music centuries later and expresses the Ottoman sound of the nineteenth-century.

Jeffrey Neil: Lamma bada yatathanna, the original Arabic title, reveals the longing of young lovers who can never be alone together because of social prohibitions. It opens with guitar and percussion, and the soprano here becomes the subject of desire rather than the object, by singing the lyrics normally sung by the man gazing upon his love, veiled in the fancy ornamented 'muwashshah' scarves for which the song is named. This song is the purest instance of a Middle Eastern musicality in the collection.

Listen — anon: Lamma bada yatathanna
(CDE 84647 track 1, 1:32-2:27) ℗ 2024 Meridian Records :

Amber Lin: The music of When She Begins to Sway accompanies the verses very well. The guitar in the opening plays in the key of g harmonic minor, which evokes a sense of mystery and something darker than a pure, sublimated love. The singer's high notes contrast with the low notes of the accompaniment, helping convey an image of the woman that the lyrics describe. Jeffrey characterizes the song as a picture of a deep yearning that can't be fulfilled, but I would view it as a fleeting, surface-level longing. The speaker wants the woman to 'respond mercifully to my complaint ... of love', yet he has only seen the woman walking past him, and perhaps hasn't even interacted. It's like scrolling on Instagram, liking pictures of hot girls, and sliding into their DMs expecting a response.

Jeffrey Neil: Both the music and lyrics of The Moorish King is Strolling are early sixteenth-century. The 'vihuela', an instrument between a guitar and lute that defined this period in Spain, makes it sound like music you might have heard in Tudor England. The singer, a Mudejar - a Muslim living in Christian Spain - describes her disappointment and anger toward a king who won't accept the danger of Christian swords, as Moorish towns fall to Ferdinand and Isabel. Anger dominates this song at times, but Vassallo manages to convey a medley of conflicting emotions - mourning and resignation - through the emotional agility of her voice.

Amber Lin: The melancholic calm of the guitar in the beginning evokes the resignation of the defeated Mudejars. The repeating vocal melody builds up over time and gets more emotional, expressing the suppressed rage of the Mudejars. When the song concludes with a minor scale V chord, making it a half cadence, it is musically unresolved. The music translates the predicament of the Mudejars, whose fate hangs in the balance: Will they force themselves to accept the Christian faith? Will they choose to stay faithful to Islam and risk death or exile? Only time will tell.

Jeffrey Neil: The Sephardic Songs are the music of the expelled Hebrews who relocated to all parts of the Mediterranean Basin, and they musically capture that sense of displacement. Although Ladino is easily readable to a Spanish-speaker, don't expect to understand the lyrics of these songs. Vassallo's interpretation is all vowels, as her voice trills in what seem to be at times microtones - in-between notes - in her interpretation of these songs. Poets tinkered with these lyrics over centuries, and twentieth-century Catalan composer Manuel Valls set them to music.

Amber Lin: The steady tempo, similar keys and simplicity of the Sephardic Songs help evoke the daily lives of the Sephardim. One good example is the song 'Irme quiero, la mi madre', in which Vassallo is accompanied by the flute. Despite the song being in the same key as 'Bird of Beauty', a song about love, Vassallo conveys a sense of bittersweetness in her voice that differentiates this song. The bittersweetness matches the song's theme, as the speaker sings 'Mother ... Out into the world I will go', speaking of leaving a mother's protection. Another song that conveys parental warmth is 'Sleep, Sleep', in which the speaker wishes their 'beautiful little boy' to sleep well. The repetitiveness of the lyrics helps create a comforting sense.

Jeffrey Neil: None other than Manuel de Falla, composer of Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the legendary playwright and poet García Lorca, traveled through Andalucía to find the 'deep songs' that they believed connected the sub-genres of flamenco in this set with music from the Levant and the Maghreb. Lorca unearthed and arranged these sixteenth through eighteenth century sevillana and jaenera cante flamenco. Even though historians trace flamenco to the Romani, one of the strengths of this collection is that after listening to the earlier songs, you can hear the kinship between Arabic music and modern Spanish music. Vassallo sings Lorca's songs almost like a bel canto, as opposed to the traditional guttural sound of the flamenco cantador. It's delightful.

Listen — anon, transcribed and arranged by Lorca: Las morillas de Jaén
(Canciones antiguas españoles)
(CDE 84647 track 12, 0:01-0:52) ℗ 2024 Meridian Records :

Jeffrey Neil: 'Lullaby of Seville' reminded me a lot of the playful sound in Bizet's Carmen, and 'Jaeneras que yo canto' had the same resonant pauses that electrify flamenco audiences. No wonder Lorca gravitated to these enigmatic and highly evocative lyrics: in 'The 'Moorish Girls of Jaén' the 'lusty' maidens go out to pick olive trees, only to find them bare; in 'Lullaby' an orphan tortoise is abandoned repeatedly and then promised a crib - made for it by a carpenter, who seems to be Christ himself.

Amber Lin: In The Old Spanish Songs, only the guitarist accompanies Vassallo's vocals, highlighting the flamenco element of these songs. The rhyming couplets in 'The Moorish Girls of Jaen' draw on the style of Spanish folk music. The vocalist's slow lamentations convey the speaker's unrequited desire for the three Moorish girls. The rubato of the beginning guitar chords in 'Songs of Jaen that I sing' allowed me to picture the fast-paced whirling of the iconic Andalusian dresses. Overall, the musical choices that were made in this set helped convey the love the singer has for his hometown, Seville.

Jeffrey Neil: La maja dolorosa is translated as 'The Sad Maiden'; however, 'maja' refers not to a pastoral maiden, but a tough girl from the streets of Madrid. Granados musically emulates Goya's painting style, which combines old and new, in this case, music that sounds like classical lieder but has an Iberian inflection. Although these are songs with lachrymose lyrics about the death of a lover and intense suffering, they don't have the heavy melancholy of the Sephardic songs. Rather, the music is transcendent, conjuring up Straussian 'Four Last Song' vibes, and Vassallo is at her best here with just the piano accompaniment.

Amber Lin: The Sad Maiden is arranged by Enrique Granados, the Romantic composer of the famous Danzas españolas and Goyescas, and my personal favorite, Allegro de concierto. I might be biased as a pianist, but the piano accompaniment makes this cycle the best out of the whole album. It is richer harmonically than the earlier songs, yet still has clear tonality, unlike the cycle Poem in the form of songs later in the album. I feel like this balance allows this cycle to show emotions the most effectively. For example, the first song 'Oh, cruel death!' reaches a climax (at 1:37) with the loud diminished e minor seventh chord, followed by a string of gentle chords.

Listen — Granados: ¡Oh muerte cruel! (La maja dolorosa)
(CDE 84647 track 16, 1:29-1:53) ℗ 2024 Meridian Records :

Amber Lin: You don't hear this contrast in volume in the previous songs, making the common theme of losing a beloved to death seem more visceral. In the second and third songs of the cycle, we hear a continuation of the theme of modulating keys matching the emotions of the lyrics. For example, in the third song, the key modulates from the original b minor to B major (at 1:14) to convey the speaker's dreams of her past love. ('I am engulfed by the dreams of a time gone by'.)

Listen — Granados: De aquel majo amante (La maja dolorosa)
(CDE 84647 track 18, 0:56-1:29) ℗ 2024 Meridian Records :

Jeffrey Neil: Although the texts for this section, Songs from the Secret Garden, were written by different medieval poets, the late contemporary composer Antón García Abril set them all to music as part of a cycle. This is one of the most interesting sections of the album and showcases Vassallo's voice. It's fascinating to listen to these quintessentially medieval lyrics accompanied by modern music. Anybody who has read courtly lyrics from this period is familiar with the antithesis that we hear in 'The Two Loves', where erotic and sublimated desire are contrasted. The piano and singer are in dialogue in a disturbing duet in which the piano is no longer back-up, but an interlocutor in this discourse of love. More haunting still is 'Elegy on the Loss of the Alhambra', a song that dramatizes regret and despair quite differently than track 2, which is also dedicated to losing Granada and this Moorish palace. This cycle contains five songs, all of them brilliantly performed.

Amber Lin: In Songs from the Secret Garden, Antón García Abril has written a more atonal vocal arrangement. Like the previous set, this cycle is accompanied just by piano. You would think that poetry as old as 717 AD should be paired with more medieval-styled music, but I think this contemporary accompaniment fits. I loved how in 'The Two Loves', there are piano crescendos at 1:38 and at 1:44 that accompany the swells of the vocalist.

Jeffrey Neil: Poem in the Form of Songs presents a five-part cycle and a return to flamenco. Composed by Joaquín Turina in exile, this is a celebrated grouping of songs that embody the spirit of Sevilla. The beginning 'Dedicatoria' functions as a piano prelude expressing volatility and passion, performed with gusto by pianist Jorge Robaina Pons.

Listen — Joaquíin Turina: Dedicatoria (Poema en forma de canciones)
(CDE 84647 track 24, 0:55-1:21) ℗ 2024 Meridian Records :

Jeffrey Neil: The cycle explores all the potent ambivalences of love, as in these lyrics from 'The Two Fears': 'I am afraid of you' and 'I am afraid without you'.

Amber Lin: The cycle Poem in the Form of Songs starts with a solo piano piece, making it the only cycle to do so in the album. The various key changes within the piece, such as going from f sharp minor to d minor (at 1:02), capture the fickle, shifting emotions in the speaker's obsession over a woman: 'You, whom I have deeply loved, / I will never forgive!' This obsession is reciprocated by the woman in 'The Two Fears'. In 'The crazies for love', the bouncy A major accompaniment embodies the unhinged spirit of the song, as the Greek goddess Venus says 'I prefer, as all women do, / that you love me for a short time and with folly', making a sweeping generalization that one can fully imagine the goddess of love proclaiming.

Jeffrey Neil: After this transhistorical exploration of Iberia and the traditions connected with it in the eastern hemisphere, we move in the last set to the Southern Cone. Simply titled with one word each, the songs of this cycle, Five Popular Argentinian Songs, are Alberto Ginastera's interpretation of folkloric music from the pampas, not the more familiar music from the cities. This cycle has a dramatic quality, as if these were operatic vignettes. Having reached the end of the album, it's amazing the breadth of musical styles and periods that are covered. I was excited by the way that so many of these sets and cycles combine tradition and musical innovation, medieval and contemporary, Renaissance and Romantic. It is, as the album title promises, a 'musical journey'.

Amber Lin: Five Popular Argentinian Songs features an atonal accompaniment that reflects the free-willed folk that animate the five songs in the cycle. 'From the Farm' commemorates the forgotten 'little snub-nosed girls', jauntily playing off the stereotype of peasant girls having upturned noses. The accompaniment for this song is bouncy and upbeat, adding to its humorous nature. In a juxtaposition, the next song of the cycle, 'Triste', features slow, meandering accompaniment with a sudden sharp G from the vocalist at 1:39, strongly evoking the torture of being rejected by a crush, as the speaker laments.

Listen — Ginastera: Triste (Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas)
(CDE 84647 track 30, 1:22-2:01) ℗ 2024 Meridian Records :

Amber Lin: This album expanded my knowledge of music and history, and I also discovered new composers and music I want to listen to again. Christine Moore Vassallo and her ensemble were a delight to experience.

Copyright © 2 July 2024 Amber Lin and Jeffrey Neil,
California, USA




 << Home              Next review >>