"To love and not suffer, that cannot be."
"Merry Christmas" it's not, but still it's an authentic sentiment from 17th-century Spain (music by Pedro Ruimonte specifically) that gave darker undertones to "Christmas in Renaissance Spain," the program Piffaro the Renaissance Band performed over the weekend, continuing tonight in Princeton.
Piffaro's intelligent program notes warned that Renaissance Spain's little-known Christmas music lacks unfettered joy. In the English translations of the villancicos, canciónes, and motets in the program, everyday realism wasn't far away. Description of angels "making a thousand fiestas in the sky" were alongside references to "a dance of pain and glory" in Bethlehem, plus lamentations about young men destined to die in war. Birth is the road to death, particularly for divinity.
Yet the program wasn't downbeat. Such realities were part of a landscape in a world with vastly different notions of longevity. More important, emotional projection of the words for such pieces was secondary to the musical construction. Also, plenty of exuberance was at hand in Piffaro's anonymous folk repertoire. One such piece played by zampogna and ciaramella, rustic cousins of the bagpipe and oboe, conjured archaic visions of simple shepherds - as codified later by Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ, among others. Elsewhere, Piffaro had its usual colorful sackbuts and dulcians, though deployed gently.
Giants of that era - Francisco Guerrero (1529-99), Cristóbal de Morales (1500-53) and Pedro Ruimonte (1565-1627) - had harmonic exuberance, though Christmas was no vacation from the irregular shifts of the music's tectonic plates. Guerrero had broad strokes that modern audiences are used to at Christmas, but the less imposing depths of Morales gave texture to the concert's relief from the season of musical familiarity.
The Friday night performance at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill - looking Spartan in a way appropriate to the music - had Piffaro still struggling occasionally to regain its technical confidence of past seasons. But guest soprano Laura Heimes was particularly wonderful, her lower range richer than usual and with a strong engagement with the music. The other guest, recorder player Nina Stern, had scintillating virtuoso moments in "Canzona" by a little known composer whose name seems more extensive than his surviving output - Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde.