It’s raining in Spain during my visit in Holy Week to the annual Religious Music Festival at Cuenca, in the province of La Mancha. It’s Don Quixote country and the tourist shops all have windmills as the local keepsake. Actually Cuenca itself is built on a rock between two canyons. The buildings are tightly packed and the steep, narrow streets echo. Cars race around the city centre, their tyres squealing on the cobbles.
The hotel is rustic. Between reception and lounge there is a glass door which the management leave open. I shut it and fail to see it next time so walk into it with a loud bang which makes the receptionist wince with the pain she knows I am feeling.
The hotel is full of journalists. I have breakfast with a Pole, an Italian and a Japanese. Everyone has an omelette because we cannot understand the Spanish attendant and just say yes to everything. The toast is paving-slab thick and turns on a constantly revolving rotisserie. We talk intelligently about the Ensemble Intercontemporain the night before but passionately about Madrid Barcelona with a headed goal from Ronaldo.
The concerts are in the churches. Each venue houses a huge wooden bier with a life-size statue of Jesus on it. At midnight these emerge onto the streets on the shoulders of hooded townsfolk who parade them round the town to the accompaniment of dirge-like marches before drinking the bars dry till dawn.
The hit of the festival is the Belgian group Psallentes Femina. They sing mediaeval plainsong with lithe voices, immaculate tuning and perfect ensemble. They are much better than the nuns of Avignon who landed a deal with Decca last year.
Voices The Benedictine Nuns of Avignon
The record company executives claim to have scoured the world for the best singers of Gregorian chant and found these French nuns. It made a nice picture signing the contract through the grill of the enclosed order. They sing the ancient melodies daily but they have slack togetherness and lazy enunciation. Their tone is pure and well-honed but they lack the spritely athleticism in their vocal cords to make the music dance. The programme includes such well-known plainchants as the Dies Irae theme that features in so much Romantic music from Berlioz to Rachmaninov but they sing it blandly and without menace.