On London's conveyer-belt of concerts, it's not often that a performance rolls along with quite the imagination and background thought of this offering from Jean Tubérys Ensemble La Fenice and soprano Arianna Savall. Concerts (and discs) inspired by the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela aren't rare; the geographical (France and Northern Spain) and chronological (17th century) co-ordinates represented by this concert are particularly rich in musical creations. But don't expect any of the usual compositional suspects here: Tubery plucked works by a litany of rare French and Spanish composers for his line-up - Loth, Coferati, Moulinie, Falconieri, Bataille, Escalada (ring any bells?) - each taken from a stop-off point on the pilgrims' route. The result was akin to a musical wine-tasting tour from Strasbourg to Santiago; yes, some works were distinctly more palatable than others, but all were of interest historically (explored in a wonderful programme-note by Lufthansa Festival founder Tess Knighton). And as the landscape of France turns ever more Hispanic on traveling south through the Languedoc, so the music performed seemed to take on an intravenous dose of Spanish 'villancico' as the concert journeyed towards its conclusion.
If there was one great success in the execution of this stage-bound pilgrimage, it was in the vivid atmosphere of collective journeying that the ensemble and Arianna Savall managed to create. Readings in English, French and Spanish coloured the 'story' of the pilgrimage, and the ensemble of six proved genuine travel companions, turning their collective hands to many musics, trading instruments across the stage (sometimes even playing two or three at once), singing together where necessary and supporting solo spots with attentive devotion. Surprising, then, that in terms of acute blend and ensemble, the result was often rough and disparate; wholly authentic, perhaps (the medieval pilgrims wouldn't have had the Hanseatic League fly in a specialist ensemble to accompany them), but one might have expected some more innate, natural integration from the talent on offer, even if they were imitating medieval amateurs.
There was consistent and pleasing musicianship from Tubéry himself, from his organist/harpsichordist Michaël Hell and from Arianna Savell. Tubéry's performance in Salaverde's Canzon per canto e basso on the cornett from the balcony of St John's Smith Square opened the second half and was beautifully shaped - soaring through the building and melting away its classical poise in favour of medieval gravity: the apex of the evening. Savell's performances were effective too, addressing the music almost as if her instruments of voice and harp weren't there at all, aptly communicating the directness of the sound-world.
The instrumental and vocal combinations worked best in the more ceremonial and polyphonic works (not least Adam Waidman's serene Sanctissime Jacobe qui meruisti), which were also the most accomplished in terms of their composition. But there were rough edges here too from some instruments, whilst the more folk-inspired pieces just didn't satisfy in terms of instrumental balance or musical interest. The final work performed, a celebration of the pilgrim's arrival in Santiago, was a just reward for some of the tribulations of the already-traveled terrain: a glorious and uplifting ensemble piece (performed as an encore and unaccredited in the programme) which highlighted just how well conceived this concert was in terms of programming and presentation - even if some of the technologies and creations don't fare too well four hundred years on.