This concert from Wigmore Hall’s Early Music and Baroque Series centred around dances and songs by Luis de Briceño, who appears to have been responsible for the introduction of the five-course Spanish guitar into France in the decades around 1620, his treatise Very easy method to learn to play the guitar in the Spanish style being one of few sources of knowledge about this. Much of the music of this long-forgotten Spanish guitarist, who laid the foundations for the guitar to flourish in France and later in England by the better remembered Francesco Corbetta, has languished in obscurity until resurrected recently by Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique.

Le Poème Harmonique and Vincent Dumestre © Le Poème Harmonique
Le Poème Harmonique and Vincent Dumestre
© Le Poème Harmonique

Dumestre brought with him an unusual but inspired combination of instruments – guitars, harp, a violone (a double bass-sized viol), bass viol, single violin and percussion including bells and castanets and a ~75 cm diameter shallow drum which on one occasion was played using the percussionist’s legs and feet. In a wide variety of forms and combinations, together they produced a light but infinitely rich accompaniment.

The programme was a mixture of instrumental and sung items. The songs were all in Spanish and although texts could be found in the programme, it wasn’t really necessary to consult them since the two singers amply described with their voices and gestures exactly what was going on. Their duets comprised mostly two distinctive styles, which was incredibly effective, but then as in the unaccompanied No so[y] yo quien veis vivir ending on a spine-tingling final note of unison. There were one or two other slow, melancholic laments, but mostly the evening was dedicated to the resolutely cheerful music of Briceño.

The opening Españoleta set the scene for much of the concert, starting with a slow violin solo and building with the other instruments before returning to the violin variations and solo main theme. Also mirrored by many of the evening’s pieces, the Españoleta led straight into to the dramatic Ay ay ah, todos se burlan de mí (Oh, they all make fun of me), with a hint of backlash by the composer at those who mocked his songs and instrument, delivered with passion and a dash of Spanish hauteur. Then, amid all the fervour, a few moments of exquisite Spanish charm, including ¡Ay!, amor loco (Ah, foolish love) and the Andalo zarabanda, both of which were so delicate and floating they could have taken off into the skies.

Briceño’s Folia had all the usual inspired variations, led by the violin, but taken up by the other instruments and then the singers, coming as a complete surprise for those of us who had never heard a folia sung before. A quick glance at the programme notes explained that Briceño appears to be the only composer who set a folia to other Spanish verses.

Other highlights included the El cavallo del marques, starting with eight guitar-accompanied two-phrase verses describing the sorry state of the marquis’s horse, but then reprised at double speed in a higher key and with both singers and full ensemble in a fiery and effervescent duet. And not forgetting the Danza de la hacha, where melody and improvisations worked their way through the guitars, then the harp and even the violine – so fast and enervating.

The guitars were a particular delight, as it is unusual in Britain to find three Baroque guitars at the heart of a concert programme, and especially in such experienced and gifted hands, all playing with concentration yet encompassing an uplifting freedom of spirit. But all the chosen instruments played a hugely integral role, and mostly not their traditional part in accompaniment, for example the harp lower range, the jazz-style bass rhythm of violine and the astonishing sight of the bass viol played guitar-style, mostly plucked but with a few bursts of strumming – certainly not merely for novelty, it worked beautifully played thus, quietly underpinning the guitars.

Dumestre has certainly done Briceño justice in bringing both his music and the Spanish [Baroque] guitar back to reclaim its place on the concert platform. His music and Le Poème Harmonique gave us a demanding, hugely individual and very different concert programme, brilliantly executed with flair and imagination, and made particularly engaging by playing right through without an interval, which made for a very intense experience. I’m still buzzing.