CD Review: Villancicos of Joseph Ruiz Samaniego with Los Músicos de Su Alteza



My first introduction to the music of Joseph Ruiz Samaniego came a year ago when I was hired to take part in a reconstruction of a 17th-century Spanish vespers for Nuestra Señora del Pilar, “Our Lady of the Pillar,” patron virgin of Spain. It wasn’t a vespers service per se, but a concert intended to present requisite vespers music by Samaniego, composed while he was Capellmeister—1661-1670—at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza (pictured below).

We performed Samaniego’s large-scale vespers music and villancicos, and I played organ solos by some of his contemporaries. In all, it was a terrific and memorable experience, yet it left me wondering why I had never come across his music before.

One reason for my lack of familiarity, and perhaps for others, as well, may be due to how widely accessible (or not) Spanish baroque music happens to be, in general, either in print or recording. However, there have been positive changes during the last two decades—more and more scores have been (and continue to be) published while a number of record labels have come around to investing in the rich repertoire that early-modern Spain and Latin America have to offer.

As for Samaniego, his music has been scarcely recorded, but was given a huge and well-deserved boost last year.

The Spanish ensemble Los Músicos de Su Alteza released the recording La vida es sueño… on the Alpha label. Directed by Luis Antonio González, the ensemble is based in Zaragoza and primarily champions the music of Spanish baroque composers.

La vida es sueño… is the first recording entirely devoted to Samaniego. The program is a sampling of the many villancicos he wrote for the Basilica of Zaragoza, including feasts celebrating Christmas, the Epiphany, St. Francis of Assisi, and, of course, Our Lady of the Pillar. A single instrumental work, Tocata de ministriles, rounds out the program and provides a moment of repose with music reminiscent of a much earlier era.

After multiple listenings, two things came to mind.

First, Samaniego was a truly excellent composer. He created works that sound like no one I’ve ever heard. All of the compositions on the recording have a unique character, each one written in several sections which are as unpredictable and surprising as they are varied. His music is expressive and quite moving.

Also, Los Músicos de Su Alteza’s robust performance makes for a rewarding listening experience. Both the vocal soloists (the choral parts are sung by individuals) and large instrumental group (strings, winds, harp, and keyboards) offer a highly colorful interpretation—energetic, inspired, and free of gimmickry.

If there is one piece on the recording that I enjoyed a little more than the others, it’s the villancico De esplendor se doran los aires, “With splendor the skies are gilded.” It is a joyous work which puts a smile on my face ever time I listen to it.

BUY: Joseph Ruiz Samaniego: “La vida es sueño…”

Basilica del Pilar, sunset

(The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. Photo: Paulo Brandão)

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