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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Cantigas de Santa Maria IV - Pillars of Wisdom
rec. St Peters, Sydney, Australia, no date provided. DDD
Texts and translations included
TALL POPPIES TP231 [62:44]

Cantigas de Santa Maria V - Gabriel's Message
rec. St Peters, Sydney, Australia, no date provided. DDD
Texts and translations included
TALL POPPIES TP232 [53:52]
Track/performance listing below review

The Cantigas de Santa Maria is one of the most famous collections of music from the Middle Ages. It dates from the time of Alfonso X (1221-1284), who was known as el Sabio ('The Wise' or 'The Learned'). From 1252 until his death he was King of Castile and León. He was highly interested in religious, philosophical, scientific and artistic matters and gathered around him a large circle drawn from those disciplines. Although of firm Christian belief, as the Cantigas show, he allowed Jews and Muslims to take part in courtly life. The social and political climate was that of relative tolerance, certainly in comparison to what was common at the time.

Sometimes Alfonso is labelled as the composer of these cantigas. Although it is likely that he wrote some of the texts and maybe even composed some melodies, it is highly unlikely that he is the author of the complete collection. It was put together under his guidance, and there can be little doubt that he was strongly involved in the process. That explains why he appears in a number of illuminations that embellish the manuscripts.

To my knowledge this collection has never been recorded complete. That is a shame, considering its qualities, but understandable as it comprises no fewer than 427 pieces. They are all in the vernacular, either Castilian or Galician-Portuguese. There are two kinds of song: those in praise of the Virgin Mary (cantiga de loor) and songs which tell the story of one of the miracles of the Virgin as she comes to the rescue of the faithful (cantiga de miragre). The songs are ordered in groups of ten, each starting with a cantiga de loor, followed by nine cantigas de miragre.

Even scholars who specialize in this kind of music don't know for sure how these songs were performed. Their character and the fact that they are in the vernacular rules out a performance in church. It is likely that they were first and foremost performed at Alfonso's court. However, as Winsome Evans states in her liner-notes, they were "written to impart spiritual and worldly knowledge for the moral edification of all his subjects". One wonders when and where they may have heard them.

The present two discs perfectly illustrate some of the issues at stake as far as interpretation is concerned. Unfortunately the booklets don't go into detail about these matters. We are informed about the way the various songs are performed but not what the considerations were that led to the performing decisions taken.

One of the issues is scoring. All the songs are monophonic and as they have a text a vocal performance is obvious. However, it is generally thought that instruments often participated, either supporting the voice - playing colla voce - or improvising additional parts. The illuminations in the manuscripts of the cantigas show a whole array of instruments of different kinds. Unfortunately the booklets give no information about the identity of these instruments. The Renaissance Players use various instruments which were or are played in the Near East and in North Africa. This is probably based on the assumption that Muslims were involved in performance of the cantigas and might have used those types of instrument. However, I wonder whether all these instruments already existed in Alfonso's time. Moreover, the fact that instruments are depicted in the manuscript doesn't necessarily imply that they were also used in the performance of the cantigas. By the same token the fact that musicians with different ethnic identities are depicted doesn't prove that these songs were not only performed by Christians but also by Jews and Muslims.

The second issue relates to the liberties which the performers have taken. Most of the songs are divided into a number of stanzas which are followed by a refrain. In many cases the refrain is sung only at the start and at the end, for instance in order not to disrupt the flow of the story. However, these refrains were not added without a purpose. The intention of the writers and/or composers was to underscore the message for the audience using musical means - for instance through repetition - and that was certainly more important than the dramatic flow. The performers also take other liberties, for example the addition of instrumental or even vocal interludes. In A madre de Deus (vol. IV) "[one] of the pairs of interludes is a section of 3-part vocal polyphony, sung a capella to 'na na na'". In my experience this has a trivializing effect.

There are many other sorts of liberty which I find questionable. In the notes to Mais non faz Santa Maria (vol. IV) we read: "The vocal melody is constantly embellished with trills, passaggi, microtonal pitch colourings and dynamics, while the sinfonye interludes between stanzas spotlight the dichromaticism of the fourth degree (perfect 4th falling, tritonal 4th rising) which cause modal ambiguity (ionian or lydian mode?)". I wonder to what extent this is based on performance practices from the time of the cantigas. Microtones, to restrict us to one aspect, were part of Byzantine chant, but on what grounds are they included in these performances? Often I also wondered about the ornamentation which seems too virtuosic considering the character of these songs. I also have my doubts whether that kind of ornament was sung at that time.

As we know little about the way these songs were performed at the time some speculation is an inevitable part of any performance. However, I believe that the performers have taken too many liberties and I doubt whether they are all in line with what might have been practised in those days. Some lovers of medieval music probably won't bother that much about these issues. They may very much enjoy these discs and rightly so considering the level of singing and playing. However, if you prefer a more historical approach it is advisable to look for other recordings.

Johan van Veen

Track & performance listing

Cantigas de Santa Maria IV - Pillars of Wisdom

Gran fe devia om' aver (C.187) [2:46]
Entre Av' e Eva (C.60) [5:26]
Ben com' aos que van per mar (C.49) [5:36]
A madre do que livrou (C.4) [9:48]
Gran dereit e que fill' o demo (C.34) [4:57]
Muito foi noss' amigo (C.210) [6:10]
Mais non faz Santa Maria (C.3) [7:57]
Non deve null' ome (C.50) [4:48]
A madre do que a bestia (C.147) [3:04]
A madre de Deus (C.184) [9:33]
The Renaissance Players (Mina Kanaridis (soprano), Melissa Irwin (soprano, tapan), Belinda Montgomery (soprano, ud), Winsome Evans (alto shawm, bombarde, zūrnā, whistle, gemshorn, harp, psaltery, sinfonye, pandero), Nick Wales (vielle), Llew Kiek (gittern), Andrew Lambkin (tapan, darabukka, pandero, finger cymbals, bombo), Andrew Stackpool (castanets))/Winsome Evans
TALL POPPIES TP231 [62:44]

Cantigas de Santa Maria V - Gabriel's Message
Macar poucos cantares (C.401) [4:36]
Bẽeyto foi o dia (C.411) [23:40]
Poi-las figuras fazen dos santos renenbranca (C.136) [4:54]
Porque trobar e cousa en que jaz (Prologo B) [4.50]
Pois que Deus quis da Virgen Fillo (C.38) [13:15]
The Renaissance Players (Mina Kanaridis, Melissa Irwin (soprano), Belinda Montgomery (soprano, diwan saz), Mara Kiek (contralto, pandero), Winsome Evans (alto shawm, zūrnā, gemshorn, harp, psaltery, pandero, pandereta, bells), Nick Wales (vielle), Llew Kiek (baglama, gittern), Andrew Lambkin (pandero, pandereta, tapan, darabukka), Andrew Stackpool (castanets, bells))/Winsome Evans
TALL POPPIES TP232 [53:52]


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