Music from the Spanish Kingdoms (CD review)

Circa 1500, Nancy Hadden. CRD 3447.

For people who enjoy early music, in this case music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this reissued CRD album, Music from the Spanish Kingdoms, with the early-music ensemble Circa 1500, is hard to beat. I don’t usually care for programs made up of bits and pieces of music, but this one strikes me as so well played, so well recorded, and so infectiously spirited, it’s hard to resist. Prepare for an hour of truly old-fashioned music making, like four-hundred-year-old music.

Musicologist Tess Knighton in a booklet note describes the music of the disc thus: “Throughout the Middle Ages the rulers of east-coast Spain...had looked across the Mediterranean and longed for a foothold in Italy. It was not, however, until 1442 when Alfonso the Magnanimous (d. 1458) defeated Rene of Anjou, his French rival for the kingdom of Naples, that such ambitions were fulfilled. Alfonso transferred his court to Naples and it automatically became a meeting-point for Hispanic and Italian culture; and from this time, sometimes referred to as the Neapolitan ‘Golden Age,’ a tradition for musical exchange between Spain and Naples was established that was to last for several centuries.”

Music from the Spanish Kingdoms offers up some thirty brief selections representative of the musical compositions that resulted from this Spanish-Italian union, a connection that lasted well into and beyond the Renaissance. Among the composers included on the album we find Juan del Encina (1468-1529), Adrian Willaert (1480-1562), Marchetto Cara (1465-1525), Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470-1535), Alonso Mudarra (1508-1580), Juan Vasquez (1500-1560), Josquin Desprez (1440-1521), Loyset Compere (d. 1518), Johannes Martini (1440-1497), Diego Ortiz (1510-1570), Giovan Tomas di Maio (d. 1563), and Figuel Fuenllana (1525-1585). You can tell by the names and dates something about their backgrounds and eras.

Most of the selections are songs, where both Spanish and Italian cultures happily coincided. Both countries enjoyed courtly love songs, so that is where the present album’s emphasis lies. Emily van Evera, soprano, supplies the vocals for Circa 1500, where Nancy Hadden plays flute, recorder and crumhorn; Erin Headley plays viola da gamba, lirone (or lira da gamba, a bass member in the family of stringed instruments) and fiddle; Paula Chateauneuf plays lute and renaissance guitar; and Andrew Lawrence-King plays Gothic harp, Spanish harp and psaltery (an ancient musical instrument consisting of a flat sounding box with numerous strings plucked with the fingers or with a plectrum).

Circa 1500 make a joyful noise. Ms. Evera’s voice is sweet and pure, with wonderful control. And the music is quite straightforward, largely unadorned and unembellished, and all the better for it. For the most part, the dance rhythms sound spirited and enlivening and the lyrical elements gently flowing and lilting. All of it is highly melodic, with Circa 1500 born to play it. Interspersed among the songs are a few purely instrumental tunes like Milano’s La Spagna, Desprez’s Il fantazies de Joskin, Martini’s Fuge de morte, and others, which also sound lovely.

CRD recorded the performances in 1989 at West Dean College, near Chichester, Sussex, England, and re-released them with new packaging in 2012. One can understand their popularity; the performances, as I’ve said, come filled with joy, and the sound quality is excellent. Ms. Evera’s voice stands out prominently but not because it appears miked any closer than the other performers. Her voice is simply the surpassing instrument here, the center of attention. More important, it sounds clear and clean, with a perfectly natural tonal balance. The other four instrumentalists spread out around and behind the vocalist in a warm, ambient group. Although ultimate transparency is not the point, they do sound most realistic.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, Goldpoint SA4 “passive preamp,” Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa