L'Arpeggiata, led by Christina Pluhar, provided a refreshing alternative to the usual round of Messiahs and other Christmas music in their concert at Wigmore Hall. Entitled “La dama d’Aragó”, the programme featured folk music from Catalonia and explored the wealth and influence of this region of Spain, in particular after Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile and united the Iberian peninsular before extending its empire into South America.

Nuria Rial © Mercé Rial
Nuria Rial
© Mercé Rial

It's hard to strictly categorise L'Arpeggiata. "Crossover" is inappropriate for their repertoire is firmly rooted in the Renaissance and Baroque, though more often drawn from folk music rather than religious or courtly music. They play “early” instruments – the theorbo (an over-sized, long-necked lute with a rich bass voice), psaltery (a stringed instrument like a zither with a curiously bright and tinkling tone), and cornetto (a conical wooden pipe covered in leather) in addition to the more familiar baroque violin, harpsichord, harp and percussion – but their approach runs counter to historically-informed performance or “authenticity”, weaving jazz-inspired rhythm and improvisation into their playing. In fact, their approach demonstrates that improvisation is certainly not the exclusive preserve of the jazz world and that Renaissance and Baroque composers and musicians regularly explored musical flights of fancy in their writing and performances.

Appropriately for the theme and character of this concert, L’Arpeggiata were joined by soprano Nuria Rial, herself a “dama d’Aragó”, a native of Aragon. Her voice was sweet and light, ideally suited to the lilting folksongs which featured in the programme. She sang in Catalan, elegantly enunciating this unusual language with subtle phrasing, expressiveness and wit.

Songs were interspersed with instrumental numbers, and the concert opened with a spontaneous Chiacona, a dance originating in Peru (and discovered by the Conquistadors) with a distinct repeating ostinato bass. It formed the basis for the Ciaccona in Italy and the Chaconne in France, and is a regular feature in L’Arpeggiata’s concerts as the form provides the jumping off point for extensive and vibrant improvisation. It was also an opportunity for the members of the ensemble to introduce themselves to the audience. And no evening of Spanish music would be complete without a frenetic Fandango, on this occasion by Antonio Soler, who studied with Domenico Scarlatti.

The use of the Wigmore’s Steinway provided some interesting timbres and colours and brought an unexpectedly modern twist to the proceedings. There was some impressive playing by percussionist David Mayoral, whose accoutrements included castanets (naturally) and strings of beads and shells, while the double bassist Boris Schmidt offered a lively one-man rhythm section. All the performers played with bravura and panache, while the ensemble playing was impeccable, precise and poised. One had the palpable sense of these musicians enjoying every moment of the performance.

If the evening lacked a “wow moment” or climactic heart, the intimacy and warmth which L’Arpeggiata brought to a wet and windy late-December evening in central London made up for that omission. For one night only the sensuous heat and vibrancy of Catalonia and Mallorca lived in London's Wigmore Hall.

****1