Martin Best remains one of the most magical of performers of the medieval troubadour repertoire. On this disc, recorded in 1982, Best explores a group of troubadours with links to Dante. Of those mentioned by Dante, three are most esteemed by him; Guiraut de Bornelh, Bertran de Born (though Dante does condemn his warmongering), and Arnaul Daniel, who was placed by Dante at the pinnacle of the Provencal lyric tradition. De Born was a minor feudal lord who owed homage to the Duke of Aquitaine (Richard the Lionheart). The lyrics of Bernat de Ventadorn, one of the greatest troubadours, were directly quoted by Dante in Purgatorio
. The others on the disc have a more tenuous link to Dante, mainly ones for whom Provencal remained the primary poetic tool.
Fascinating though these links are, they are really only a hook on which to hang a group of superb songs. Best is at his strongest and most seductive in this repertoire. He doesn't have the most beautiful of voices, but what he does feels right and natural; he convinces you that he has been singing these songs all his life, a modern day troubadour. He is accompanied by Jeremy Barlow, David Corkhill and Alastair McLachlan, playing a variety of instruments including pipe, tabor, rebec, guitarra moresca, timbrel, dulcimer, oud and lute. It is here where the recording shows its age as Best uses a great variety of instruments to accompany the songs, providing a richly varied musical texture; more recent performances of music of this period have tended to shy away from this elaboration. Though the musical arrangements are quite technicolour, Best does occasionally sing unaccompanied. The group introduce a remarkable range of colour to the different items and though they are generous with their use of timbres, their performances are strong in subtlety as well.
The CD booklet includes a brief introduction to the repertoire and song texts in English, but sadly it does not include any texts in the original languages.
You might well want to go for a more austere approach in this repertoire. Catherine Bott has recorded a disc of troubadour and trouvère music, including songs by Bornelh, only she is on her own, singing the entire disc unaccompanied. I would like both approaches in my library. With this repertoire it is all simply a question of personal preference. We know so little about the original performances of this music that any convincing version has validity.
Best's performances are
convincing, giving primacy to the text and they are vividly communicative. So if you haven't got this disc on your shelves, then buy it – it is very seductive.