Luys Milán: El Maestro, Libro 1 (1536)

José Antonio Escobar vihuela de mano
Naxos 8.573305

Luys Milán’s El Maestro (1536) was the first of seven books of vihuela music published in the 16th century. The first nine pieces are fantasias, in modes 1-4, not too hard to play, and graded according to difficulty. There follow nine fantasias with redobles (running passages) exploring all eight modes, four fantasias in modes 5-8, and six pavanas, the last of which is in triple time. José Antonio Escobar plays all the solo music in the order in which it appears in the source, and plans another CD to cover the rest of El Maestro (Libro 2). Milán’s music has an improvisatory feel, and he seems to enjoy the repetition of little motifs or riffs, which may be heard in more than one piece. In bars 73 and 77 of Fantasia 19, there is an extraordinary throw-back to earlier times with a double-leading note chord. There are some curious changes of harmony, such as the unexpected shift from major to minor in bar 15 of no. 3.

Escobar’s playing is clear and expressive, and he creates a variety of moods from the lively to the slow and reflective. He adds his own ornaments sparingly – an upper mordent here and a lower mordant there – and a flourish in the repeat of Pavana 1. He articulates chords to good effect, for example in Fantasia 19. He sounds fine when he keeps the rhythm steady, and he has a nicely paced ending to Fantasia 7, but sometimes he has a jerky way of playing – accelerating through fast passages – which creates a feeling of instability and unease. Milán advises playing fast notes extra fast, but he doesn’t invite a drastic change of speed within each phrase. Dotted minims tied over the barline are clipped in no. 3, also adding to the effect of stumbling forward. Escobar strums a few chords in the final track, but the momentary uplift from that, is spoilt by rushing the fast notes (minims).

Nine bars from the end of the second fantasia there is a serious mistake which has slipped through the editing net: instead of a chord consisting of just two E flats and B flat, Escobar catches the fourth course, adding a minor third, yet if a full triad had been desirable, a major chord would have been appropriate. The same rogue G flat can be heard in bar 83 of no. 3, bar 70 of no. 7, and bars 107, 165, 178 and 191 of no. 19. Rather than risk this happening, one might be tempted to hold down a G at the 2nd fret of the 4th course, so if the wrong string is sounded, at least the resultant major chord wouldn’t be so bad. However, the way to avoid G flat sounding at the fourth course, is to stop the second and third courses with the first finger of the left hand as if an open 1st course were needed, rather as a violinist would for stopping a perfect fifth, and not use a full barré across all the strings at the first fret.

For the final cadence of no. 4, I would dampen the open 6th course of the dominant chord before playing the final chord with the open 5th course in the bass. Escobar lets the 6th course ring on, producing a second inversion for the last chord – interesting, because in no. 5 he does dampen the string for a clearly stated final chord.

Escobar’s vihuela was made by Julio Castaños from Málaga, and is tuned to G at A=415. It has a clear, bright sound, which suits the music well.

Stewart McCoy