Fahmi Alqhai had already had his eye on him 25 years ago, but there are projects that need his time. The viola player, director of the Seville Ancient Music Festival (FemaS), however, knew that sooner or later he would end up recording with his group, Accademia del Piacere, the Songbook of the Colombina of Seville, one of the great sound monuments of the Spanish Renaissance, preserved for five centuries in the Library of the same name in Seville’s cathedral. Now, thanks to a Leonardo grant from BBVA and the Seville City Council, he has been able to carry out the recording under the title Columbian. Music for the Dukes of Medina Sidonia.
Preserved thanks to the bibliophile zeal of the son of Christopher Columbus, Hernando, who acquired it in 1534, it was most likely in manuscript in the opulent chapel of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and the city that was a European commercial capital and was about to become a America’s gate.
“The songbook is the photo of a period, the origin of the Spanish identity just before the discovery of America, when our culture was going to be impregnated with overseas influences,” explains the musician. 95 pieces that make up the oldest corpus of the Spanish repertoire, of which Alqhai has selected fifteen, with the signature of composers “of a very high level, who play all styles”, he adds. The predominant composer is Juan de Triana, although it also contains compositions by other renowned authors such as Johannes Cornago, Johannes de Urrede and Johannes Ockeghem.
According to Alqhai, we are facing real hits of the moment, the great pop hits of the 15th century, conceived to suit the Dukes of Medina Sidonia and their guests, although today they seem somewhat far from the ear of the contemporary music lover. “It could be defined as a pre-Renaissance. Our ear is used to tonal music, a Vivaldi, for example. But this is not a hard music at all, it was created for the delight of small meetings, not for big ceremonies or going to the complicated of the composition. It was music for palace entertainment, so to speak. Short pieces, without too much search for transcendence, that as a musician allow you a wide margin of recreation”.
In fact, this detail has made the process of Columbian. Music for the Dukes of Medina Sidonia. “An especially stimulating challenge”, is how Alqhai defines it, for whom “it wasn’t just about playing written notes, but about imagining a music of which we only have a skeleton, with very little meat. Many songs are strophic, they repeat a simple melody with a very simple counterpoint, and you have to develop the rest. This is something that surprises many people, because in fact the scores, generally, are not usually there to tinker with much: you don’t do it with Mahler’s 5th or with The passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, which are very written. But here the music is very defined, you have to be more creative. And, of course, you have to know how they approached this music”.
“Another issue is the original sound,” continues Alqhai. “Nobody knows what this sounded like, it’s an entelechy. That’s why we had to be aware that we play for a 21st century audience, and from there try to get something powerful”.
play with risk
And powerful songs, of course, sound like the tender what a nice little boythe serene and comforting Ave Maris Stella or the polyphonic epic of Postludium among other musical landscapes. The recording was made in the Convent of San Pedro de Alcántara of the Colegio Mayor La Luz, a small architectural jewel in the city of Seville unknown to the general public and which maintains the appropriate acoustic and sound conditions. Once these days were registered, the editing, mixing and mastering work was carried out in Jordi Gil’s Sputnik studios with Félix Vázquez and Rami Alqhai at the head of the editions.
The album’s unmistakable appeal has seen major labels Sony Classical and Deutsche Harmonia Mundi become involved in its international distribution and production respectively. The result, now available on digital streaming platforms, holds a surprise for lovers of the physical format: one of the editions of the album contains both the full concert recorded at the Sala Turina in Seville last December and a documentary about the Project.
Regarding the fact that these compositions have been so little disclosed over the years, the musician points out that “it is not an unknown repertoire, it has only been used little. We have Vivaldi, Haendel and Bach in concert halls all the time, but a repertoire like this doesn’t even appear. Jordi Savall recorded the Columbian in the late ’80s, but in general bands are scared to embark on music like this.”
Savall, one of Alqhai’s teachers, appears once again as “a great reference, he always has good ideas, but I think that music has changed a lot since the 90s, we know much more about early music than 30 years ago, and in this sense we have played with certain advantage. I think we have approached the material from a somewhat more risky perspective, but it happens with everything we do: we play with risk and with the limit, which is where the most enriching things are”.