Virgin Records/Harmonia Mundi
l'empreinte digitale ED 13111/HM83

San Juan of Cruz or Saint John of the Cross was born as Juan de Yepe in 1542 in the province of Avila of Spain. Under the religious name of Juan de Sancho MatiaIt, he took on the mantle of the Carmelite friars of Medina del Campo in 1563 while attending the University of Salamanque for 3 years. By 1567, he was known as Jean of the Cross and spiritual friend to Saint Thérèse of Avila. He spent nine months in a Toledo dungeon, escaped and many decades later died in Ubeda, province of Jaen in 1591.

The "Dark Night of the Soul" is his best-known work, a mystic poem of Christian spirituality, revelations in consciousness and the prior phase of ego annihilation clothed in semi-erotic language of parted lovers which was composed to the convent of Calvario. In La Nuit Obscure, Vicente Pradal sets this incandescent text to music and, besides providing Flamenco guitar and vocals, surrounds himself with Ruben Vélasquez and Sergio Guirao on voices,
Renaud Garcia-Fons on double bass and Franck Monbaylet on piano. Both Pradal and Guirao had already collaborated on Abed Azrié's Suerte Live [L'Empreinte Digitale 13099], a stunning juxtaposition of Arabian and Flamenco ensembles celebrating an Arabo-Andalous fusion which set sacred Sufi and mystical poems to song.

The first four stanzas of Night describe the escape of the heart which leaves home in the dark of night to fulfill its deepest desires and embrace the torments of lacking union with the beloved. The final four last stanzas describe the Divine union, the subsequent transformation and peace everlasting found.

Vicente Pradal was born in 1957 in Toulouse and is distantly related to Antonio Rodriguez Espinosa, schoolmaster of Fédérico García Lorca in Fuentevaqueros. He participated in hundreds of concerts with Juan Varea, Rafael Romero, Carmen Linares and Enrique Morente and acknowledges Flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela as his most influential guitar teacher. He's also performed traditional music by Bizet, Massenet or de Falla. Dark Night of the Soul led to a parallel album named Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejías which sets to music Lorca's famous poem about a popular matador gored to his death by a bull in the arena. Pradal's discography includes Surface Flamenco, Amenecer, Ida y Vuelta, Guitara Flamenca, La Nuit Obscure, Llanto and Gitano Romancero.

La Nuit Obscure is a bona fide masterwork of glorious poetry set to perfectly matched music. It's as stunning as Loreena McKennitt's exploits in that direction or Soeur Marie Keyrouz' more formal Byzantine works. By rotating lead vocals among the three tenors, each track alters the flavor of vocal delivery, from subtly Latin/Flamenco inspired love song to lithurgical tenorship and plainsong, with harmonizing interludes or joint climaxes added for impact.

La Nuit Obscure becomes as convincing as it is not only because of the quality of the vocalizing but the wonderfully extended melodic arcs and instrumental ambience that accommodate the full progression of emotions, from severe doubt, nearly unbearable longing and darkness to triumphant light and illuminated insights. This feat becomes all the more memorable because it eschews the expanded tonal palette of symphonic forces. While bass, guitar and piano may seem rather sketchy in such an ambitious pursuit of a literal tone poem that enjoys lyrical roots as deep as anything by Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Kabir or Hafiz, it's precisely this relative sparseness that serves the heightened expressiveness of Nuit.

Unlike a lot of emasculated Christianity, the Sufi-reminiscent eroticism of St. John's writing lends itself to musical translations more impassioned and juicy than a baroque requiem or vesper would allow for. This ambiguity and tension between flesh and spirit is what Vicente Pradal's compositions and settings exploit in excellent taste and with just the right kind of Hispanic motifs to celebrate the saint's nationality. Far more could be said about this recording if I had the original liner notes. Alas, one of our readers (gracias, Jim!) sent me a burned copy without notes other than track titles and even a full hour of googling didn't unearth proper cover art or anything else of note. Obtaining this album might thus require some ingenuity and most likely European connections but will be well worth the effort. Pradal's newer albums are still listed with the usual US mail-order suspects and I will attempt to get my greasy mitts on anything else this very talented composer/singer/guitarist has released.