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Alfonso X of Castile ‘El Sabio’ (1221-1284)
Cantigas of Santa María

Santa María, Strella do dia (Holy Mary, Star of the Day) Cantiga No.100 [2:40]
Non sofre Santa María (The Lost Steak) Cantiga No.59 [2:55]
Non é mui gran maravilla (The German Gambler) Cantiga No.294 [2:38]
Santa María amar (The Baby Rescue) Cantiga No.7 [2:53]
A Santa María dadas sejan loores (To Holy Mary Praise Be Given) Cantiga No.140 [0.51]
Quen Bõa dona querra loar (He Who Wishes to Praise a Good Lady) Cantiga No.160 [3:29]
Muit é mais a piadade (The Girl Who Ate Spiders) Cantiga No.201 [2:58]
A Virgen, que Deus Madre est (A Man Swallows A Rabbit Bone) Cantiga No.322 [1:24]
Virgen, Madre Gloriosa (Glorious Virgin Mother) Cantiga No.340 [2:35]
Porque ben Santa María (A Priest Steals an Altar-Cloth) Cantiga No.327 [2:27]
Entre Av’e Eva (Between Ave and Eve) Cantiga No.60 [1:11]
Se ome fezer de grado (A Knight’s Forgiveness) Cantiga No.207 [1:20]
Fremosos miragres (A Knight’s Hawk) Cantiga No.352 [4:51]
Por nos, Virgen Madre (Implore God for Us, Virgin Mother) Cantiga No.250 [2:32]
Ben pode Santa María (A Dragon-Slaying) Cantiga No.189 [1:35]
O que en Santa María (A Knight Bargains with The Devil) Cantiga No.216 [2:56]
Ay Santa María (Musa Goes to Heaven) Cantiga No.79 [2:59]
Santa María loei (Holy Mary Have I Praised) Cantiga No.200 [0.54]
Muito, foi noss’ amigo (Gabriel Was Our Friend) Cantiga No.210 [2:08]
Rosa das Rosas (Rose Of All Roses) Cantiga No.10 [3:28]
Santa María, strella do dia (Holy Mary, Star of the Day) Cantiga No.100 [1:41]
Entre Av’e Eva (Between Ave and Eve) Cantiga No.60 [1:35]
Martin Best Medieval Ensemble
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, 10-12 June 1984. DDD.
Booklet with summaries and/or translations but not original texts.
NIMBUS NI5081 [51:30]

Experience Classicsonline

The Cantigas of Alfonso El Sabio appear not to be commercially very viable. Of the many versions which have appeared, even those which postdate the original issue of this Nimbus recording, only a handful remain in the catalogue – just seven in the UK, by my reckoning, not counting the Portugalsom version of six of the Cantigas with other pieces, a special-order edition reviewed here in 2001; I’m not sure if this is still available.

King Alfonso contrived to bring together the cream of Christian, Moslem and Jewish scholars and musicians, for which he was graced with the title el Sabio, the Wise Man. His patronage of Arab scholars helped the Christian world to rediscover the lost works of Greek antiquity, including scientific texts which had been preserved in Arabic. Today the only surviving reminders of the harmony which briefly existed in medieval Spain are provided by the Mozarabic liturgy, celebrated in a side chapel in Toledo Cathedral, and the splendid manuscripts which contain the Cantigas. The Mozarabic liturgy contains the text of the Mass which was tolerated in Arab-controlled medieval Spain, in sharp contrast with the lack of tolerance shown centuries later by Ferdinand and Isabella when they gained control. Sadly, Alfonso’s enlightened attitude was not combined with political nous and did not prevent his downfall.

The Cantigas, some probably by Alfonso himself, are a collection of 425 poems in Galician dialect, closer to Portuguese than to modern Spanish, recounting miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary, Cantigas de miragre. Each tenth piece contains the rubric Esta é de loor de Santa Maria – ‘This is in praise of Saint Mary’ – known as Cantigas de loor, or Songs of praise. Alongside the cult of fin amors, or courtly love, the cult of the Virgin Mary was developing in the late 12th and 13th centuries. Guiraut de Bornelh’s Reis glorios, the final piece on another Martin Best Nimbus recording which I recently recommended, Forgotten Provence (NI5445, see review) shows this process developing in the troubadour homeland of Provence; the Cantigas show it in full spate.

In Rosa das Rosas the Virgin is addressed in language which would be equally appropriate in courtly love: she is the rose of all roses, the mistress whom a man must love, the lady whose troubadour the singer wishes to be: "Esta dona que tenno por Sennor/e de que quero seer trobador."

One recording which has survived and is likely to survive the deletions axe is on Naxos 8.553133, a performance of thirteen of the Cantigas by the Ensemble Unicorn, Vienna. This CD has the advantage of opening with the Prologue to the collection and closing with the Epilogue (both wrongly stated to be Cantiga 60), neither of which is included on the Nimbus recording. Martin Best provides his own logic by opening the Nimbus CD with a pilgrim song, Santa María, Strella do dia, in which Mary is addressed as the day-star from on high which will serve as the pilgrims’ guide.

The Naxos recording contains just 13 pieces against the 22 on Nimbus, though it offers almost ten minutes more playing time. The reasons for this will become apparent.

Only three works are common to both recordings. Both abridge Virgen, Madre Gloriosa (no.340); Naxos offer the first half of the first stanza and the last three stanzas (8:32), whereas the Martin Best Ensemble performs only the first stanza and refrain (2:35), without either set of notes acknowledging the abridgement. Both obscure the pattern of the work, whereby each stanza after the first begins with the words Tu es alva, ‘thou art the dawn’, taking up the word alva from the end of the first stanza:

Ca Deus, que é lum’ e dia,
Segund’ a nossa natura
Non viramos sa figura
Senon por ti, que fust alva.
[For God, who is the light of day, would not have been seen by us in person, because of our [limited] nature, had it not been for you, the dawn.]

The instrumental accompaniment is richer and, thus, more intrusive, on the Ensemble Unicorn recording. Listeners will have their own preferences in this respect; I can take both. The singing (counter-tenor on Naxos, tenor on Nimbus) is more reflective than Martin Best’s, the recording rather closer. As on most of the Nimbus CDs which I have heard recently, the Martin Best recording needs a boost of 2 or 3 dB to make it sound really well.

In Rosa das Rosas, actually No.10, not 330 as stated in the Nimbus booklet, the Martin Best version again abbreviates the piece considerably, Ensemble Unicorn not at all. Both performances handle this piece reverentially, the Nimbus slightly more so than the Naxos.

The Martin Best Ensemble split Entre Av’e Eva between tracks 11 and 22. I can see the logic behind this arrangement – each half of the programme ends with this almost archetypal piece of medieval Mariolatry – but, as with Virgen, Madre Gloriosa, it destroys the internal logic of the text. Ensemble Unicorn place the whole piece at the heart of their programme, probably for the same reason.

The piece is based around the very common medieval pun on Ave, ‘hail’, the angel’s opening words to the Virgin Mary, and Eva, the Latin version of the name of Eve. As the first Eva let down the whole human race, so Gabriel’s Ave to Mary marks its redemption. Martin Best offers just the opening refrain, first stanza, and first refrain; Ensemble Unicorn sing the complete piece.

The Naxos version is particularly effective, with the bass-baritone singing the words relevant to the sin of Eve in each stanza:

For Eve exiled us from Paradise and God;

and the countertenor telling of the redemption of Mary:

Ave, however, restored us [to Paradise], my friends:

then both sing the refrain:

Between Ave and Eva there is a great difference.

On Nimbus, the whole stanza is sung by the solo singer, with (all?) the other voices joining in the refrain; this would have been effective if we had been allowed to hear more of the piece.

The Nimbus CD contains a greater number of the loores in praise of the Virgin Mary, eleven of the 22 tracks; the Naxos contains only three such pieces out of 13 tracks. As the loores count for only one in ten of the complete Cantigas, the Naxos recording therefore offers a more rounded, though still distorted, indication of their place in the whole collection.

Virgen, Madre is not the only piece on the Martin Best recording to be drastically shortened.

In particular, most of the pieces which deal with miracles are presented by Martin Best in shortened versions. At least, the notes in the booklet acknowledge this, if only by inference, as in Santa María amar, where the booklet fills in with a summary from "the complete song". Not all these Cantigas de miragre are solemn; Non sofre Santa María (The Lost Steak) could almost be a piece of Chaucerian knockabout. It receives a suitably robust performance.

Sometimes the translations in the booklet seem confused about exactly which portions of the texts are actually sung. In Se ome fezer de grado, the introduction is omitted, as acknowledged in the booklet, but the performance is of the first two stanzas, whereas the booklet translates the last two stanzas. Presumably the eminent translator, Professor Jack Sage, could hardly believe that the performance would omit the final stanza in which the miracle is narrated – the Cantiga is nonsensical without it, for all the vitality with which it is sung here. But, then, without texts and with the translation giving a false impression, how is the listener to know that (s)he is effectively being short-changed?

In several of the Cantigas which narrate the miracles of the Virgin, both ensembles at times employ rhythmic speech – a kind of medieval Sprechstimme – to tell the story. On Naxos the story is often delivered in a forceful and dramatic manner. Some may feel this to be over the top, but I found that it added spice to the works, especially as I don’t find it overdone here.

On some recordings of medieval music, one feels that the performers have gone out of their way to over-characterise and stress the rough edges of the music; that is not the case with either version under consideration, though the Naxos leans further in that direction. Sometimes the Martin Best Ensemble use the declamatory style, at others they slightly under-characterise the music. If Ensemble Unicorn declaim the story as to a large audience, the Martin Best singers sometimes seem to be confiding the story to one person. In Se ome fezer de grado, for example, the narration is delivered sotto voce. Both performances are lively; both should readily appeal to the modern listener.

Since Alfonso was inconsiderate enough not to leave us his own definitive recording of the Cantigas, there is clearly room for a choice of interpretations. Even in their own time, these works were probably performed in a variety of ways, depending on the availability of singers and instrumentalists. Both booklets list the instruments employed, a broadly similar assortment, and both make the point that the instruments employed are all depicted in manuscripts of the Cantigas.

Both performances and recordings have sufficient going for them, and there is so little overlap of pieces anyway, for me to recommend both. If forced to choose, I should recommend the Naxos as the better choice for beginners in the hope that they will like what they hear so much that they soon go for the Nimbus, too – and for their Forgotten Provence CD, too.

If you’re still looking for more, there is a version on Warner Apex with the Camerata Mediterranea and the Andalusian Orchestra of Fez, directed by Joel Cohen: 2564 61924 2, at bargain price and strongly recommended on Musicweb. (see review.)

As with the Forgotten Provence CD, it is something of an irritation that the original texts are not provided, only part-summaries, part-translations. The Naxos is no improvement in this respect. The original texts are, however, available online, arranged on the (French) home-page by Cantiga number. Click on the Cantiga number for a midem file to open in your Media Player, or on the opening words for the text. The spellings of the online texts differ slightly from those given by Nimbus; the Cantigas exist in several manuscripts, each reflecting slight dialectual variations. (Madre groriosa for Madre gloriosa, for example; but Rosas das Rosas is a typo in the web version for Rosa das Rosas.) There is also an Oxford database for the Cantigas.

The notes in the Nimbus booklet are brief but informative. The Naxos booklet offers two for the price of one, since the French version of the notes is different from the German and its English translation. Both covers are appropriate and attractive: Naxos offer an illustration juxtaposing Eve and Mary, the theme of Entre Av’e Eva; Nimbus have a depiction of Alfonso’s court. Unfortunately, only the inner portion of the original is reproduced, depicting Alfonso presiding over his clerical and secular scholars; the outer wings, depicting musicians at the court, which would have been more appropriate, have been cropped.

Those with a particular interest in the music of this period may also like to note the reissue, as part of the 50th. Anniversary celebrations for the Telefunken Das Alte Werk label, of the version of the Carmina Burana (i.e. the medieval original, not the Carl Orff version) by the Studio der frühen Musik under Thomas Binkley (2564 69765-9, 2 CDs).

Brian Wilson




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