The tiny city of Cuenca punches above its weight culturally, says Terry Grimley.
Until recently the city of Cuenca has been one of Spain’s best kept secrets: in fact, I have to hold up my hand and admit that until a few months ago I had never even heard of it.
But now it seems the Spanish may be ready to share it with the rest of us. This ancient walled city with a population of just 47,000 people – that’s roughly the equivalent of Evesham – and located a two-hour drive north of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha, has a spectacular hillside location and an ancient centre which has undergone considerable restoration in recent years. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996.
Next year a new high-speed rail line from Madrid to Valencia is due to open, slashing the journey time from the capital to Cuenca to 45 minutes. And as banners displayed in the cathedral square proudly announce, Cuenca is bidding for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016.
What it has going for it, first of all, is the constantly shifting views of ancient architecture as you walk around its pedestrian-friendly centre, which rival those of Venice in defying the tourist to put away his camera. And then there is the hillside location, with its spectacular views of ravines on one side and a canyon on the other.
The architecture and the natural landscape come together in Cuenca’s most celebrated feature, the casas colgadas, or “hanging houses” which rise steeply and precariously from the top of sheer cliffs, alarmingly supported by seemingly ramshackle props.
The most photographed of these houses, with its picturesque wooden balconies looking out into mid-air, has since 1966 been the improbable home of the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art.
Its appearance, however, is deceptive. From beneath, or from the narrow cobbled passage from which you enter, you might imagine at best a couple of domestic-scaled galleries. But in fact, it’s like entering the Tardis as an astonishing sequence of rooms gradually opens up in front of you.
The collection it houses is devoted mainly to a generation of artists born in the 1920s, of whom by far the most internationally known is Antoni Tapies, an artist normally associated with Barcelona.
Spanish abstract art of this period – the collection is focused mainly on the 1950s and 1960s – is something unique to itself. It is distinguished by its extraordinarily sombre colours and preoccupation with texture, as if these paintings had literally been created from the earth. It’s an uncanny experience to turn from Tapies’ large painting Maroon and Ochre and gaze at the similarly coloured rocks across the valley.
Another painter represented in the museum is Antonio Saura, brother of the film director Carlos Saura and a former Cuenca resident who has a museum all to himself. The Foundacion Antonio Saura is another fine conversion of an old building.
This is where, last Saturday, I heard the Italian violinist Fabio Bondi and the American harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss performing music by Bach and Telemann as part of the Semana de Musica Religiosa.
Established in 1962 and the fourth oldest music festival in Spain, this festival is devoted to music of religious or spiritual inspiration and is held at Easter alongside the numerous religious processions for which Cuenca is renowned.
Concerts are held in the small 750-seat Teatro Auditorio which opened at the foot of the hill around 15 years ago, and in various of Cuenca’s many churches.
All the events are either broadcast live or recorded for future broadcast by Spanish radio.
The main focus of this year’s programme was music of the baroque and early classical periods, with many of Europe’s leading early music ensembles including The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Les Talens Lyriques, Il Complesso Barocco, Ensemble Guilles Binchois and Europa Galante. Bach, Handel and Haydn – the 200th anniversary of whose death is being marked this year – featured strongly in the programme.
But as well as reviewing the religiously-inspired repertoire of the past, the festival aims to add to it. This year’s major commission, in association with the Berlin Radio Choir, was Messages by Sutton Coldfield-born Jonathan Harvey, included in the second of two programmes by the CBSO last Saturday.
In addition to this substantial new work (which actually had its premiere in Berlin last year) Harvey was represented by his Piano Trio and in a survey of English a capella music given by Tenebrae, the group directed by former Ex Cathedra member Nigel Short. The Tenebrae performance, which sadly took place before I arrived in Cuenca last Wednesday, was apparently a particular hit.
With concerts starting at midday, 5pm and 9pm (this being Spain) each day, you can pack a large amount of music into a relatively short stay. One of the regular midday venues was the Iglesia de la Merced, a church which forms part of a monastery and is in the process of being tastefully converted into a library.
Here I joined large and appreciative audiences to hear German pianist Christian Zacharias give compelling accounts of two Haydn sonatas sandwiching eight by Scarlatti and – for me the biggest discovery of the week – French choir Accentus and pianist Brigitte Equilbey in Liszt’s Via Crucis, a far more seductive experience than I had anticipated.
Accentus joined Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis’s direction for a performance of Handel’s English oratorio Theodora.
An attractive feature of the festival is the way artistic director Pilar Tomas mixes up the various ensembles. This provided a footnote to CBSO history, as this was the first time the orchestra appeared on stage with the Berlin Radio Choir, with which it has shared its chorus director, Simon Halsey, for a number of years.
On Thursday night the Berlin choir – or rather a smaller, advanced guard – joined an Italian orchestra, Europa Galante, under its engaging violinist-conductor Fabio Bondi, for a performance of Haydn’s Stabat Mater.
Add in a range of international soloists and this little city really did feel like Europe’s meeting place.
Visiting ensembles for next year’s festival will include Manchester’s Halle Orchestra.
* My visit to Cuenca was made possible by an invitation from the Semana de Musica Religiosa with support from the Spanish Tourist Office, and I flew with Iberia from Heathrow to Madrid.
* For more information about Cuenca, contact the Spanish Tourist Office, PO Box 4009, London, W1A 6NB (0207 486 8077). 24-hour information and brochure request line: 08459 400 180.
* E-mail: email@example.com