Many centuries ago, Alfonso the Wise addressed his cantigas to the Virgin Mary; Notre Dame polyphony found its way to Burgos and following the Inquisition, Sephardic Jews worked into remaining shreds of Spanish song the subtle vocal inflections they learned in adopted Balkan homelands.
What all these events have in common -- what makes them Spanish music -- is hard to appreciate in just a single concert that sampled one or two of everything. Sunday at the Folger, Madrid's Alia Musica captured the unique musical continuities spanning centuries in Spain.
The influence of Arabic music was considerable -- not surprising when we consider that Arabs ruled Spain for seven centuries. Alfonso's "A Madre do que Livrou" crackles with fetching cross-rhythms, contrasts between unison and solo singing, and copious ornamentation. Although all of this requires hard-driving precision, the group conveyed a sense of unbridled improvisation. With lutes, fiddles, flutes and tambourines of varying sizes and timbres, the group's instrumentations afforded audiences the very medieval pleasure of colorful sound for its own sake.
A more elusive delight in Spanish medieval music is the merging of sacred and secular realms. "Congaudeant Catholici" and "Canto de Ultreia," both from the Codex Calixtinus, are tributes to divine glory that also seem to delight in their own magnificent architecture.
Alia's striving for continuity was also its weak point, a failing to disguise its overall lack of preparation in the songs' specific styles. A more nasal, incisive delivery was required for the Arab- and Balkan-influenced folk tunes, not the sweet, transparent tones recycled from the European-influenced devotional works. It's not that Alia Musica hasn't found its own voice, but that it took too many shortcuts. The longer road -- one that incorporates discoveries about the music, texts and the peoples that created them -- is the one to try next.