Les Sacqueboutiers is a group from Toulouse that has an established history in the early music field as a period wind band. While the group maintains a busy concert schedule, mostly in Europe, and maintains an impressive retinue of themed programs, most of its recording activity has been as an element within a larger body, such as supporting William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. Nevertheless, the group has recorded at least five CDs on its own for the Ambroisie label, of which El Fuego is the fifth, and in such settings Les Sacqueboutiers draws around itself such additional instruments as needed for the repertoire involved, in this case an organ, a Baroque guitarist who doubles on vihuela and theorbo, and a vocal quartet. The repertoire is Spanish and centers around the work of middle-Renaissance composer Mateo Flecha "the Elder," who was the master of the ensalada -- yes, it means salad -- a kind of quodlibet that pulled together elements from both court music and popular tunes of his day, usually assembled to serve some pictorial or allegorical purpose. The ensalada did not long outlast Flecha, but Les Sacqueboutiers has discovered some commonality of approach in the Tientos composed by early Spanish Baroque organists Francisco Correa de Arauxo, Juan Vasquez, and Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia. Their works not only help vary the many courses of ensalada offered, but Correa de Arauxo's trope of Cristóbal de Morales' battle piece La batalla becomes part of the main course through the novel manner in which the Tientos is parsed out among the instruments.
The level of inspiration in terms of arranging is slightly inconsistent among the support material; even though these bridging pieces are quite short in most cases, it is in these tracks that the program seems to get a little bogged down. However, the realizations of the works of Flecha are outstanding, palpitating with rhythm, sung with gusto and enthusiasm, and almost operatically varied in terms of instrumental color. This is so well done that one wonders what marvels Les Sacqueboutiers would be able to wring out of madrigal comedies, such as those by Adriano Banchieri. Les Sacqueboutiers' treatment of Flecha's La Justa (The Tournament) is a real standout, with the attention paid to its highly flexible rhythms and use of tastefully handled percussion throughout. La Guerra (The War) is treated as the mother of all battle pieces, with ominous, martial percussion sounding well before the piece begins. La Guerra is such an elaborate and well thought out realization that it almost seems like a mini-opera in itself. While Ambroisie's El Fuego may not be wall-to-wall in its absolute sense, the best of it more than makes up for any momentum lost, and this should well satisfy those who take an interest in the typically salty and spirited popular side of the Renaissance coin.