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Amor de Lonh: The Distant Love of the Troubadors
I: Guiraut de Bornelh (c.1140-1196), Canso melody quer conselh, bel amiAlamanda [1:26]; Perotin (School of Notre Dame, c. 1200), Marian Antiphon Beata Viscera [1:39]; Jaufre Rudel de Blaye (d.c.1160), Canso: Can lo rossinhols e.l folhos [7.35]
II: Instrumental dance (Italy, 13th Century), Salterello [2:14]; Marian Antiphon. St. Yrieux Gradual (11th Century), O Maria Iesse Virga [3:58]; Bernart de Ventadorn (d.1194), Canso : Ab joi mou lo vers e.l comens [5.15]
III: Instrumental dance (13th Century), Danse Royale [3:09]; Marian Antiphon. Cluny (c.1100), Venit dilectus [0:37]; Jaufre Rudel de Blaye, Canso: Can lo rius de la fontana [4:59]
IV: Instrumental dance (France, 13th Century), Ductia [2:47]; Instrumental dance (Italy, 13th/14th Century), Salterello [2:31]; Hermanus Contractus (d.1054), Marian Antiphon Alma redemptoris mater [1:27]; Marian Antiphon. St. Maur-les-Fosses (c.1100), Paradisi porta [0:39] ; Bernart de Ventadorn, Canso: Tant ai mo cor ple de joya [11:40]
V: Instrumental dance (Italy, 13th/14th Century), Lamento di Tristan [1:59]; Rotta [1:44]; Marian Antiphon. Montier-la-Celle (11th Century), Anima mea liquefacta est [1:30]; Bernart de Ventadorn, Canso: Can par la flors jostal vert folh [5.42]
VI: Guiraut de Bornelh, Canso melody [4:20]
Martin Best Consort
rec. Concert Hall, Nimbus Foundation, 15-17 July 1996. DDD.
Booklet with texts and translations.
NIMBUS NI5544 [65:11]

Experience Classicsonline

I have already reviewed and recommended two Nimbus recordings of the Martin Best Ensemble, now once again available thanks to the resurgence of that label, but, sadly, ignored by the current editions of the Penguin Guide and Gramophone Guide. Follow the links for reviews of Forgotten Provence (NI5445) and the Cantigas of Alfonso X (NI5081).

The present recording develops the two themes addressed by Guiraut de Bornelh in Reis glorios on the Forgotten Provence album, fin amors or courtly love and the love of Christ and His virgin Mother. Though medieval poetry frequently treats Mary as more approachable than Jesus, her position as Queen of Heaven nevertheless makes human love for her seem as distant a longing as the amors de terra lontanha, love from a far-off land (tr.9) of the lover for his earthly beloved. In the 14th-century English poem Pearl, even the poet’s own daughter who died in infancy, now one of the heavenly consort, remains aloof and unapproachable, as if the narrow stream across which he sees her in a vision acted as a force-field. To her father’s request to cross to her, the daughter replies sharply:

Me þynk þe burde fyrst aske leue,
And et of graunt þou my te fayle.
Þou wylne ouer þys water to weue;
Er moste þou ceuer to oþer counsayle:
Þy corse in clot mot calder keue.
For hit wat forgarte at Paradys greue;
Oure orefader hit con mysseeme.
Þur drwry deth bo vch man dreue,
Er ouer þys dam hym Drytyn deme.
[You had better ask permission first – and yet I think you would not get it. You want to cross over this water; first you must alter your thinking – your corpse must lie coldly in the earth, for it was forfeited in the grove of Paradise; our forefather [Adam] misjudged matters. Every man must pass through dreadful death before the Lord may judge him worthy to pass over this water.]

How much more distant, then, the Queen of Heaven.

Martin Best explains in the accompanying booklet the manner in which he has merged these themes, each of the first five sections commencing with one or more instrumental items, mostly in dance form, followed by one or more antiphons in praise of the Virgin Mary and concluding with a canso or courtly love song, by two of the best-known troubadours, Jaufre Rudel and Bernart de Ventadorn. The opening instrumental piece is by the third of these well-known troubadours, Guiraut de Bornelh, with a final sixth section consisting solely of another instrumental piece by Guiraut, whose music thus frames the whole programme.

Whatever one may think of the explanation which Best offers, based on the philosopher Boethius, a pre-eminent figure in medieval thought, the programme certainly works well as a whole. I am inclined to recommend it almost as much as the Forgotten Provence CD, though that spreads its net more widely and offers a rather better introduction to the music of the period. Both are as enjoyable as they are unlikely, in terms of authenticity, fully to satisfy scholars. The latter are likely to prefer the several Gothic Voices reissues on the Hyperion Helios label which I have recently reviewed.

On the other hand, those who expect to find medieval jolly japes here will be largely disappointed. Apart from some of the livelier dances, such as the Rotta (tr.16) – and Martin Best can, perhaps, be accused of spicing these up a little and over-emphasising the contrast between the solemn and the lively – the mood of the music on this recording is quiet and reflective.

The works on offer range from the eleventh to the early fourteenth centuries, albeit centred on the twelfth-century troubadour pieces, which will be the main point of interest for potential purchasers. Though Occitan, the Provençal language of these cansos is very different from that of Northern France, Jaufre at least seems to have anticipated a widespread appreciation of his music:

... quar gens Peitivina
De Berry e de Guizana,
S’esgau per lieys, e Bretanha.
[... for the Poitevin people, those of Berry and Guienne, are pleased by it, and those of Brittany.]

The opening canso melody, played on a Moorish guitar reconstructed from a manuscript illustration, commences the programme quietly. Some of the other sections begin with two contrasting dances, their varying styles well captured in the performances on the psaltery and guitarra moresca (Martin Best) and harp (Frances Kelly). The Lamento di Tristan (tr.15) and the Rotta (tr.16) make a particularly good contrast.

Pérotin’s Beata visecera (tr.2) is not one of the Notre Dame master’s most striking pieces; indeed, none of the Marian antiphons on the CD, all dating from before or around 1100, and some of them of short duration, is likely to be as attractive to the modern listener as later polyphonic settings. They are hardly likely to sell the recording in their own right but all are sung with great delicacy.

Alma redemptoris mater was the favourite song of the little clergeoun or choirboy martyred in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. The Prioress tells us that he now sings "O Alma loude and cleere" in Heaven. The Martin Best Consort are hardly likely to rival such heavenly perfection, but they come pretty close, particularly here but also in the other antiphons.

Anima mea liqufacta est blends earthly and spiritual love, the text taken from the Song of Songs, which the medieval church applied to the Virgin Mary, though the secular love theme is clearly discernible. The piece is sung here with as much feeling as is possible for such a simple setting.

Nightingales inevitably feature largely in medieval love poetry. In Can lo ruis de la fontana (tr.9) they join those other symbols of love, the clear water of the fountain and the eglantine or sweet-briar. In Can lo rosinhol (tr.3), a nightingale appears in the very first line, stirring the heart of the courtly lover. The theme of this canso is not rejection by his beloved or her ignorance of his existence – that theme was to be more fully developed later by Dante and Petrarch – but the tension of having to leave her, usually to go on crusade. The theme of the canso turns from the secular love of its beginning to the desire to love and serve God. Martin Best’s singing might have benefited from greater contrast between the opening and the ending but his rendition is otherwise very enjoyable.

Indeed, I enjoyed his performances of all the cansos, especially Ab joi (tr.6), which receives a beautifully affective performance. Martin Best’s note in the booklet is very helpful in describing the appeal of this piece, but he leaves the reference to Peleus’ lance unexplained, other than to say that it evokes "a swift image of Celtic battle". In Homer’s Iliad the lance which Peleus gave to his son Achilles had the power to heal any wound which it had itself created – Bernart’s comparison of it with the power of love here is particularly apt; if anything, more apt than Dante’s use of a similar image in Inferno XXXI.

I know that some feel that Martin Best’s singing sometimes emphasises beauty of tone at the expense of the meaning of the words – one critic has levelled this criticism at his performance of Tant ai mo cor (tr.14) – but it is not a criticism that I endorse. Tant ai is a remarkable evocation of the madness of the lover – not the raging madness of Ariosto’s Orlando but the sheer illogicality of one who sees flowers in winter and feels so confident in the power of love that he could stand naked in the cold north wind, car fin amors m’asegura, for courtly love makes me safe. Best’s performance seems to me from the start fully cognisant of this illogicality.

All the cansos on this CD stress the power of love rather than rejection by the beloved. Love drives the singer to madness in Tant ai mo cor but it is absence rather than rejection that is the theme even in this piece: he is lonh de leis, en Fransa, far away from her, in France. The title of the CD, Amor de lonh, is actually taken from a canso by Jaufre Rudel, Lancan li jorn, not included on this disc but featured on the Forgotten Provence disc:

Lanquan li jorn son lonc e may
M’es belhs dous chans d’auzelhs de lonh,
E quan mi suy partitz de lay,
Remembra.m d’un’ amor de lonh.
[In May, when days are long, the sweet songs of the birds from afar are dear to me, and, when I have gone far away, I remember love from afar.]

I cannot imagine the sweet melancholy of this theme being better expounded than by Best.

The final sung canso, Can par la flors (tr.18) is perhaps the most striking. Its final motto, Mo Bel vezer gart Deus d’ir’e de mal,/S’eu sui de lonh, e de pres atretal (My beautiful vision, may God guard you from harm and pain,/If I be far away or near you, it’s the same) sums up the mood of all the cansos here ; its words and music are haunting, especially in Martin Best’s performance.

And when all the tributes to the heavenly and the earthly ladies have been sung, the unnamed melody by Guiraut de Bornelh (tr.19) brings us full circle, to the calm of the opening track.

The recording is good, though it is best played at a rather higher volume than usual. Though rather less close than the Forgotten Provence CD, to its benefit, Martin Best’s solo voice is clearly focused, with the instrumental accompaniment shimmering in the background. The Marian antiphons are recorded with the voices, as it were, in the middle distance.

Texts and translations are provided, though typos such as quit e for qui te (track 5) are annoying – and, surely, the past tense of ‘beseech’ is ‘besought’, not ‘beseeched’ (tr.14). And shouldn’t Salterello be Saltarello, though I have retained Nimbus’s spelling in the headnote of this review?

If you feel that you want to know more about the troubadour tradition before you buy any of these CDs, the article in the Concise Grove is a good starting point – follow the link.

Brian Wilson



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