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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Cantigas de Amigo
Martin CODAX (13th century) Seven Cantigas de amigo [59.36]
Estéváo RAIMOND (13th century) Amigo, se bien [3.18]
Bernal DE BONAVAL (13th century) Fremosa a Deus grado [5.18]
Roi Fernandez DE SANTIAGO (13th century) Quand’eu vejo las ondas (6.12)
Fin’ Amor (Carole Matras (voice and harp); Bernard Mouton (recorder); Michael Grébil (oud and viele); Thomas Baeté (viele); Vincent Libert (percussion)
rec. 17-19 May 2003, Church of Saint-Rémy de Franc-Waret, Belgium
MUSICA FICTA MF 8002 [73.24]
Experience Classicsonline


The first song-cycle? That is how the seven songs (only six survive with music) which make up the ‘Cantigas de amigo’ by the thirteenth century Portuguese composer Martin Codax have, on occasion, been described. They have been recorded several times, indeed I have two versions on my own shelves one of which features Sinfonye with Mara Kiek as the singer (‘Bella Donna’ Hyperion CDH 55207). Here you have to cope with a performance which is in the style of an eastern European singer, very throaty and consistently loud, which my wife for one, “can’t abide”. In defense of Kiek’s approach I will however, as an aside, quote Gustave Reese in his famous tome ‘Music in the Middle Ages’ in which he comments that “the melodies seem to be based on surviving Mozarabic examples”. It is a pity if Keik’s voice does not appeal because the disc offers some fascinating and at times virtuoso instrumental work. Sometimes some the songs are found anthologized on a general disc of early music (‘A Chantar’ on Christophorus CHR 77290) but, to the point, will I keep this new version?

Martin Codax was Galician and what he actual left us was a simple melody line with a separate text, no rhythm was given and the performers, if they want to spin the piece out, have to use instruments perhaps to fill in between verses or to create drones or simply to add percussion and colour. What Codax expected no-one will ever know. The songs are for a girl as she gazes out across the bay at Vigo, just inside Portugal as her lover disappears on a long voyage perhaps never to return. “Lonely in Vigo I remain/And none to guard goes in my train”. If you have been to Vigo to catch a ferry as I’ve done then any romantic medieval feelings will soon have been dispersed by its sheer ugliness … but never mind. Codax’s melodies are very simple, quite repetitive and folk-like. The first time I heard them was on an early 1970s LP (I think in Erato’s Musica Espagnola series). This is I lent to someone but it was never returned. The songs were all over in about thirteen minutes, as I recall. In the Hyperion recording, mentioned above, they take a relaxed twenty five minutes. This new version takes almost an hour over them as you can see above. How does this come about?

I was listening to this CD soon after hearing some Galician folk musicians live and was astonished how close Fin’ Amor have come to recapturing their ‘modus operandi’. Each song will almost certainly have an introduction, establishing a tonal centre, possibly a tempo and certainly a mood. Once the singer feels able to join in, the verses may be sung right through with some lines or verses being repeated vocally by the instrumentalists who may also play between the verses. There will be an instrumental postlude in most cases. These instrumentalists improvise vaguely around the melody to start with and then more closely once it’s ‘rolling’. This is what happens on this CD which, in addition has a distinctly Spanish - even Andalucian - atmosphere at times.

Carole Matras is quite a star. Her voice never grates but is mellifluous and expressive, folksy but clearly trained. She has a clear understanding of each text. For example the third song ‘Mia Irmana fremosa’ begins with a gentle drum-beat and then the tune is given by the recorder. The voice starts with verse 1 and for verse 2 an accompaniment is added on the viele after which it plays a verse alone accompanied by a drone. The next verse for the singer still vies with the drum but now two vieles add polyphony. And so on. Subtle variety and an engagement with the poetry comes with “Sweet Sister, come willingly to the church at Vigo/alongside the rising sea”. As a contrast the next song ‘Ai dues, so sab’ora meu amigo’ begins with a lengthy harp solo and the song last over ten minutes. For this entire song Matras accompanies herself.

The rest of the ‘Bella Donna’ disc mentioned above is filled out with songs but mainly instrumental estampies. This new Belgian recording adds three other ‘Cantigas de Amigo’ by some little-known troubadours. Only the poems survive as Bernard Mouton tells us in the very interesting booklet notes. “As a result, we had recourse to the contrafactum … a technique using an already existing melody to the text”. Suitably they use tunes found in a contemporary source that is the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ compiled by Alfonso el Sabio. What I find curious therefore is that only the song by Raimondo is sung with a text. The other two are played instrumentally therefore the meaning of the texts is lost.

As you have gathered I am full of admiration for these performances. The recording has a natural glow due to the church acoustic. The documentation is complete with photos and texts and it all comes in a cardboard holder with a slipcase for the booklet. I do hope that you can track it down.

Gary Higginson




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