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Birds Who Have Lost Their Way

This article was first published at The Classical Review on April 27, 2012.

available at Amazon
Los pájaros perdidos, P. Jaroussky, L'Arpeggiata, C. Pluhar

(released on March 13, 2012)
Virgin 5099907095023 | 75'33"
As long as you appreciate that what Christina Pluhar does with her pseudo-early music ensemble L’Arpeggiata is crossover, you will understand how to assess their recordings. If you are comfortable with the idea of Baroque instruments and historical music mixed with more recent music, you may like it. If you are expecting historically-informed reconstructions of old music -- or would be shocked to hear a countertenor singing modern popular music -- be warned. (That is not a joke: the disc’s final track is an oozy Bésame Mucho.)

Pluhar has written and spoken of her belief that what her group does is to make a connection with a “living Baroque” musical culture. But studying 17th-century musical scores and writings on how music was performed only takes her so far. Going further, she tries to unearth how historical repertoire (which figures almost tangentially in their newest release, Los Pajaros Perdidos, devoted to music from South America) may be illuminated through popular musical traditions, as if the secrets of how 17th-century singers ornamented a melodic line have somehow been preserved in the performances of contemporary pop songs.

Superficial similarities can be observed, of course, but the fundamental difference between the two bodies of music from past and present is measured by the divide between notated and non-notated music. Yes, the classical music tradition has unfortunately lost most of its engagement with improvisation, but while bringing classical performers into contact with musicians who work primarily through improvisation can be fruitful, rather than giving some insight into how 17th-century musicians may have improvised, it is, surely, mostly teaching them how to improvise and perform like 21st-century ones.

The historical music on this new disc, the first installment of what Pluhar is calling the South American Project, is limited to a single Fandango by Padre Soler, a composer in 18th-century Spain, plus a tiny prelude by Tarquinio Merula grafted onto a later song.

Out of 20 tracks, there are seven pieces from Venezuela, Paraguay, and Argentina labeled as traditional or folk songs. Add to that twelve 20th-century songs in the folk style by the likes of Ariel Ramírez, Ástor Piazzolla, Constantino Ramones, Norberto Ambros, Pancho Cabral, Maria Elena Walsh, and Adela Gleijer. There is not much Baroque about it.

The performances are stylish and beautiful. Jaroussky has one of the prettiest sounds, rounded in tone and rarely shrill, among countertenors singing today. The other singers, from non-classical backgrounds, are distinguished by individual tone colors: the chesty resonance of Italian folk singer Lucilla Galeazzi, the reedy nasality of unclassifiable high tenor Vincenzo Capezzuto, the somewhat mannish wail of Luciana Mancini, the breathy airiness of Raquel Andueza.

The best instrumental contributions come from cornetto player Doron Sherwin, with swinging rhythm from jazz bassist Boris Schmidt and a varied percussion section.

Pluhar has marshaled a mixed ensemble, combining her usual assortment of plucked and struck instruments (psaltery, harp, theorbo, guitar) and four musicians on traditional South American instruments such as the cuatro and charango. Of those last, she admits that they “differ little” from what we know of European instruments, but argues that her musicians have mined what they could of various playing techniques associated with them: rhythmic and harmonic patterns, improvisational ideas and so on.

But whether any useful information about (or illumination of) European Baroque music can be teased out of what Pluhar describes as the “hybridization” of Indian, Spanish, and African influences in South American popular music is anyone’s guess.

L'Arpeggiata at the Library of Congress (March 21)

In Her Own Words: Christina Pluhar (March 14)

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