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Thys Yool: A Medieval Christmas
Martin Best Ensemble/Martin Best
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire, Wales, 4-5 May 1988. DDD. Ambisonic (UHJ encoded)
Booklet includes Modern English translations but not original Middle English, French and Latin texts.
NIMBUS NI5137 [64:07]

Experience Classicsonline

I: I sing today of Joy

Personent hodie (C14th, from Piæ Cantiones, 1582) [2:02]
II: Winter and Wassail

Judas and Wenceslas (C13th) [1:31]
Gautier de COINCY (c.1177-c.1236) Hyer Matin [5:07]
Miri it is (c.1225) [1:52]
Man mei longe (c.1250) [5:26]
Thys Yool (c.1396) [1:03]
Tapster, drynker (c.1450) [1:15]
Gautier de COINCY Ja pour Hyver [4:27]
III A Child is born

Gabriel from Heven-King (C13th) [2:26]
Chester Nuns’ Song (c.1425)[3:11]
Hail Mary full of grace (C15th) [4:11]
As I lay on Yoolis Night (C14th/15th) [3:39]
Edi be thu (late C13th) [2:09]
Richard de LEDREDE (fl. c.1320) Perperit Virgo [2:49]
IV Mary Mother, Queen of Heaven

O Virgo Splendens (C14th) [2:20]
Alfonso el Sabio of Castille (late C13th) Cantigas: Loor de Santa Maria [1:56]
Polorum Regina (C14th)[2:57]
Mariam matrem (C14th)[2:02]
V Mary’s Son, Goodwill on earth

I pray you all (late C14th)[2:09]
Ther is no rose (early C15th)[4:42]
Caligo terræ scinditur (early C14th)[2:01]
Princeps Pacis (C15th)[3:13]
VI Rebirth

Mors vitæ Propitia (conductus, c.1200)[1:17]

Those who have read my reviews of other recordings by the Martin Best Ensemble on Nimbus will have a fair idea what to expect: the blurb on the cover describes Best’s performing style as ‘renowned for its vivid authentic performance’ – by a fair degree, however, the ‘vivid’ part of that description prevails over the ‘authentic’, not that it’s any the worse for that. With bright recording to match, these performances will have a considerable appeal, perhaps rather more so than the earlier Martin Best CDs which I have reviewed: Cantigas of Santa Maria (NI5081); The Distant Love of the Troubadours (NI5544); The Last of the Troubadours (NI5261) and Forgotten Provence (NI5445) – in each case, click on the catalogue number for a link to the review. Christmas is, perhaps, a more potent link to the past than courtly love lyrics.

The rousing performance of the opening Personent hodie gets the programme off to a flying start; it comes from the 16th-century collection Piæ cantiones, but is doubtless much older than that. Personent will be a familiar tune to most listeners, as will the music of Judas and Wenceslas (track 2), another piece from Piæ cantiones which was ‘stolen’ for the wholly fictitious Victorian concoction which we know as Good King Wenceslas, but there is a wide variety of origins, themes and styles. Medieval English, Latin, Provençal, Catalan and Spanish all feature here.

Some of the English music offers medieval translations of Latin originals, such as Hail Mary (tr.4), a paraphrase of the Latin Ave Maria, the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary. Gabriel from Heven-King, a translation of Angelus ad Virginem (tr.9), relates to the same theme. This was a well-known piece in both English and Latin – Chaucer’s Miller makes the clerk Nicholas sing it ‘So swetely that all the chamber rong’ (Canterbury Tales, I, 3215-6) – and is to be found in several recordings of medieval Christmas music, including one which I recommended strongly enough this time last year to make it a Bargain of the Month (Gabriel’s Greeting, Sinfonye/Stevie Wishart, Hyperion Helios CDH55151 – see review). The Sinfonye recording is probably no more authentic, with its mixture of female voices and instruments as exotic as those employed by the Best Ensemble. Neither is unfaithful to the spirit of the music but the Helios scores in its significantly lower price and the greater fullness of the documentation – this Nimbus recording, like most of those in the Martin Best series, offers only translations, not the original texts.

Gabriel from Heven-King is not the only piece common to both recordings. With approximately 12 minutes of overlap between the two recordings, the question inevitably arises: if you bought the Hyperion last year on my recommendation, is there enough extra for me to recommend buying the Nimbus CD, too? Though the Hyperion remains the stronger recommendation, I have to say that the Nimbus is certainly very worthwhile.

Sinfonye restrict their attentions to medieval English Christmas music; Martin Best casts his net more widely. You may think a little too widely, since he concludes with Mors vitæ propitia (misprinted as propitiæ at one point in the booklet), a thirteenth-century French conductus intended for Easter (tr. 23). I’ve heard stranger things – carol services which ended with This joyful Eastertide, the one Easter carol to have survived generally – but it still strikes an odd note.

Some of the music, like Miri it is (tr. 4) and Man mei longe lives weene (tr.5) is less than cheerful – these two, some of the earliest poems in Middle English, stress the rigours of winter and the even greater rigours of the end of human life. They may not fit our cosy post-Victorian view of Christmas, but they remind us of the harsh realities of life which our ancestors had to deal with, as shown in the winter scenes in medieval books of hours or as described in the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Gawain’s welcome at the castle of Haut Desert provides such a strong contrast to the miseries of his journey there. These performances prove that Martin Best and his Ensemble can cope with the thoughtful as well as the jolly.

Medieval France contributes its fair share of the music here, not surprisingly in view of the repertoire of the Martin Best Ensemble. Gautier de Coincy was a Provençal troubadour and his Hyer Matin (track 3), like As I lay on Yoolis night (tr.12), is a chanson d’aventure. Hyer Matin corresponds more nearly than the English piece to the features of such chansons in that the first half is about courtly love; only half way through does Gautier turn the tables and proclaim that lovers may sing of Mariete and Robardelle, he will sing of Mary and her Son. It’s a neat trick, until you find that it’s a common feature of troubadour song. Gautier doesn’t repeat the trick, however, in Ja pour Hyver (track 8) – he merely contrasts the misery of winter with the solace brought by the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus.

Whereas in the livelier works much use is made of the diverse array of accompanying instruments, these more reflective pieces receive appropriately more restrained treatment. Even Thys Yool (tr.6), the piece which gives its name to the whole collection, receives a comparatively restrained performance, appropriate to its status as a courtly love song, though the following Tapster, drynker (tr. 7) more than makes up.

Other music comes from Southern France and Catalonia, from the Llibre Vermell or Red Book of the Abbey of Montserrat – tracks 15 (O Virgo splendens), 17 (Polorum Regina) and 18 (Mariam Matrem). Worthwhile as they are, these pieces only scratch the surface of this collection – don’t be surprised if they tempt you to sample a larger selection. (I’m afraid I’m not familiar with any of the current recordings; my favourite version has been deleted.) The same is true of track 16, in praise of the Virgin Mary, from the Cantigas of King Alfonso ‘the Wise’ of Castille. Martin Best has recorded a selection of these on Nimbus NI5081 – see link in the first paragraph of this review – and there are further selections on Warner Apex (Joel Cohen, 2564 61924 2) and Naxos (8.553133, Ensemble Unicorn) both at budget price. Again, you’ll probably want to explore in greater depth the collection of this remarkable king, whose artistic interests sadly did not prevent his losing his kingdom. (Kings who patronise the arts tend not to have political success – Richard II of England is another case in point.)

The cover illustration, Brueghel’s Census at Bethlehem, adds to the appeal of an attractive and unusual Christmas recording. In fact, three of the Christmas CDs which have come my way this year have been out of the ordinary – Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band in 19th-century church-gallery style (Saydisc CD-SDL366), Red Byrd’s offering of Elizabethan Christmas Anthems (Amon Ra CD-SAR46), and this. None of them have been new recordings but all have been very worthwhile.

Brian Wilson





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