Spanish Music of the 17th Century: A Recital by Hopkinson Smith

ARTS, Music

img_hopkinsonsmithHopkinson Smith
New Zealand Festival
Pataka/Wesley Church | February 23-24

The sunlight in the bus was beautiful. The bus was full but no one spoke. Everyone seemed to be under the spell of the late afternoon sun and was lost in a slumber. In this enchantment it was like time had come to a halt, and I wished that I could stay in this timeless state as long as I could. “Is this Porirua?” I asked the girl next to me. “Yep,” she replied. I got out. I boarded another bus. The local bus driver drove past Pataka and when I came up to ask him about it some minutes later, mildly anxious, he drove the whole bus around, a detour just for me. Used to the busy life of Tokyo, I was amazed at how laidback things were here. Just 20 minutes out of Wellington I seemed to have travelled to a far, far place.

The music of 17th century Spain is from a far, far place. Far from Porirua. Far from 2014. The man on stage seemed completely captivated by this music. I wondered how he could spend his life in such a remote world. Used to the louder sound of modern instruments it took me time to adjust to the delicate sound of this small elegant baroque guitar. So much time in fact that it was perhaps only during the last piece of the concert that I was beginning to enjoy myself a little bit.

The names of the composers he played were completely unknown to me and are hardly household names: Gaspar Sanz, Francisco Guerau, Antonio de Santa Cruz.

Not like the 17th century English composers Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd, and Henry Purcell. To me the music of these arcane Spanish composers in this performance didn’t really transcend its time. It seemed to speak of that era rather than to rise above it. It seemed to verge on the mere academic. What was interesting for me was that this was the kind of music which Domenico Scarlatti heard when he came from Italy to be the music teacher of Portugese and Spanish princesses. It is like he captured so much of what was in the music before him and with his genius brought it to a high point in his 555 sonatas for the harpsichord, so many of which imitate the guitar sounds he heard. One could imagine how these new sounds would have fascinated him.

The music of the last piece of the concert, by Gaspar Sanz, was a Canarios, a piece based on the folk music which the Spaniards heard when they invaded the Canary Islands in the 15th century and is a further example of fascination with another culture’s music. In Japan there is a sponge cake called Castella, derived from the contact with the Portugese missionaries in the 16th century. It comes elaborately packaged and is now a traditional Japanese sweet popular for giving to people as souvenirs. In the hall where we listened to this 17th century Spanish music one of the walls was of glass, looking out onto a Japanese garden. When my mind wandered I could look out at the garden. One of the most beautiful moments of the concert was when a sheet of white paper, perhaps a concert programme, was blown by the wind over the Japanese garden.

Listening to this concert was like going to a museum of treasures from another age. One could no longer listen to it as the entertainment it would have been listened to at the time. Hopkinson Smith in one of his announcements, as elegant and refined as his playing was, said that the Sarabande was regarded as such a lascivious dance that it was forbidden by the church. It must have caused a scandal similar to the introduction of the waltz in the 18th century, I thought, and now we were politely listening to it. Smith’s playing was the epitome of refinement and his style of music evidently has its afficianados, but for me an hour and a half of it was somewhat monotonous.

I don’t know these composers so well, so I’m not sure just how much of my reaction to attribute to them, the performer, or a combination of instrument and hall. A very small room with an audience of two or three I could imagine being ideal for this instrument. In that sense maybe it is suited to recording better than live performance. Listening to his recording on Youtube, however, I am inclined to agree with one of the commentators that his playing is excellent technically, but lacks breath. Another word related to breath is spirit. I guess I missed a largesse of spirit. The pianist Sviatoslav Richter makes an interesting comment that when music is played too fast it sounds dull. Maybe these performances were played in the wrong tempo, with the wrong breath.

I have the suspicion that this supreme refinement and erudition can work to the detriment of the music, music which is after all a reflection of the forces of life. I always want to feel alive when I listen to music, not like being in a museum.

This may be a matter of taste however. Some people love going to museums, visiting things of the past that are now dead. Listening to recordings of Spanish music of a similar period by Jordi Savall I get the impression that the music is brought to full-blooded life. I, for one, will always prefer the live performance to the dead one.