Well known and revered in much of Europe, Maria Cristina Kiehr performs infrequently in the UK, so since this year’s York Early Music Festival centred around the Spanish musical expansion during the 16th Century, a real focal point was this concert of the music and poetry from Castile in the early Renaissance. Trained at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the Argentinian-born soprano specialises in Baroque music but also has an extensive repertoire from early Baroque/late Renaissance composers such as Monteverdi and Guilio Caccini.

An audience of some 200 in a very quiet, acoustically-ideal converted church, and accompanied by a single vihuela - this is as exposed as singing gets. An elegant, contained figure on the platform, Maria Cristina Kiehr exudes stillness and control - an occasional lift of a hand or slight turn of head is the most in the way of physical gesture; all the work in differentiating the words and mood is done with her cool yet rich, crystal-clear, pitch-perfect soprano voice, ideally suited to these collections of Spanish polyphonic manuscripts. The detailed programme notes explained that the two songbooks represented were the Cancionero de Palacio (around 500 pieces with the earliest work dating from 1505) and the Cancionera de Segovia, complied between 1499 and 1503, containing Mass parts and Magnificats but also secular works.

Nearly all the chosen songs were laments, in one form or another, for lost loves both earthly and heavenly. The sentiments were much the same in all of the songs, neither were any of them technically demanding in the sense of requiring florid ornamentation or stratospherically high notes, but the smooth, long, flowing lines, exquisitely delivered with iron-lung breath control, and almost no vibrato, brought out every subtlety of each work. English translations had been provided, but as the evening progressed more and more of the audience simply put aside the texts just to listen as Ms Kiehr’s voice etched out for us the soul-searching poetry. In te Domine speravi (In thee, O Lord, have I trusted) set by Josquin des Prez (c.1440-1521) was probably the best known of the works (and the only composer I had come across before). This piece is often sung in four parts, but at the time was apparently adapted regularly for solo voice with any number of different string instruments. Taken quite slowly, it was the highlight of a captivating evening.

Ariel Abramovich provided a sensitive accompaniment throughout with a vihuela de mano, a type of early guitar which was prevalent in Iberia during the late 15th to 16th centuries, in preference to the lute which dominated in Italy and much of the rest of Europe at the time. The vihuela was known (from pictures) to have been used to accompany singers, though there is no documented evidence as such. It was perfectly suited to the music, adding the polyphonic effects of the music but in no way intruding on the solo voice and, in the very best sense of the meaning, being almost un-noticeable.

It was an enlightening evening of seldom heard music, and a gripping tour de force from a remarkable singer.

*****