LABELS: Alia Vox
WORKS: Chanson d’une malheureuse mère; Sephardic ballad; Canção de embalar
PERFORMER: Montserrat Figueras (soprano), etc; Hespèrion XXI/Jordi Savall
CATALOGUE NO: AV 9826
Lullabies are, by their nature, monotonous, repetitive, unsophisticated and soporific, so a recital devoted to them risks sending listeners to sleep. But so diverse and rich in delights is this intriguing collection, ranging from 16th-century folk lullabies to familiar art songs by Falla, Milhaud, Mussorgsky, Reger and Arvo Pärt (from whom two contributions were commissioned), that it’s absorbing rather than tiresome.
From a Western perspective it seems incredible that anyone might be soothed by the ululating vocal line and tambour rhythms of the bleak, though captivating Berber lullaby, in which sleep is encouraged as a refuge from hunger, cold and unhappiness. Nor by the troubling Sephardic ballad in which a mother confides fears of her husband’s infidelity to her infant, a theme also used by the German Classical court composer Reichardt in his Chanson d’une malheureuse mère.
But the mood is not consistently sorrowful, nor even maternal. In the cheering Portuguese canção de embalar, for instance, it is Joseph who’s rocking Jesus to sleep – though the first verse tells us he’s only babysitting so Mary can wash the nappies.
Montserrat Figueras has a pure, bright, steady soprano, and is unfazed and convincingly idiomatic (if sometimes accented) in 11 languages (including Estonian, Greek and Hebrew). And the rhythmic, mostly Renaissance-style accompaniments by Jordi Savall, for violas da gamba, guitars, flutes and psaltery, are spare, atmospheric and never eclipse the heartfelt singing. Claire Wrathall