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Cantigas de Santa Maria
Virgen Madre groriosa [4.50]
Des oge quer’eu trobar [5.43]
Quen as sas figuras da Virgen partir [4.37]
Por nos de dulta livrar (instrumental) [2.58]
Entre Av’e Eva [2.43]
Santa Maria leva [5.13]
Quem boa dona querrá [2.18]
Gran piadad’ e mercee e nobreza [4.34]
Rosa das Rosas, fro das frores (instrumental) [1.14]
Santa Marai amar [6.06]
O fondo do mar tan chao [5.06]
Pera toller gran perfia (instrumental) [2.20]
U alguen a Jerucristo [5.02]
Non pod’ame pela Virgen (instrumental) [1.59]
Quen serve Santa Marai [2.57]
Sen calar [4.49]
Que por al non devess’ame (instrumental ) [2.25]
Rosa das rosas fror das frores [4.28]
Como poden par sa culpas [2.57]
Barbora Kabátková (soprano, gothic harp and psaltery); Margit Ùbellacker (dulcis melos); Martin Novák (percussion); Hana Blaziková (soprano, gothic harp, romanesque harp, Group Director)
rec. Church of our Lady beneath the Chain at then end of the Bridge, Prague, 2014
PHI LPH017 [72.32]

Little is known of the secular music of the Spanish peninsula prior to the thirteenth century. By far the most considerable legacy of Spanish songs of the Middle Ages is the great collection compiled under the guidance of King Alfonso X ‘el Sabio’ (the wise) who was king of Castile and León (1252-1284). This is known as the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’. The texts are in Galician-Portuguese. There are 419 pieces in all and the songs can be found in three manuscripts with a fourth, which has words only. These songs tell of miracles that occurred due to various acts of devotion to the Virgin but every tenth piece is a song of praise. It’s entirely possible that King Alfonso wrote the words of some and indeed some of the music. His troubadour Guiraut Riquier (d.1292) might also have been a collaborator.

As an example of the sort of storyline I will quote from Gran piadad’ e mercee e nobreza in which “Holy Mary healed the woman who was physically wounded by her husband because he could not have her” due to a promise she had made to the Virgin to keep her virginity.

Not only are these songs intriguing in their own right but the manuscript itself is lavishly ornamented with pictures often of musicians playing the popular instruments of the day giving us some idea what was played at that time. This has led many performers to the belief that they should all be included in a recording of this repertoire.

Over a decade ago I was in the Catalan region of southern France and attended a concert at the extraordinarily beautiful and restored abbey church of St. Michel-de-Cuxa given by a group directed by Eduardo Paniagua entitled ‘The Life of the Virgin’. They later recorded twenty of these pieces on a double CD (Sony S2K 62284). Paniagua’s stage, I recall was beset with five singers and at least ten instrumentalists. Over the course of the evening everything imaginable was played including many oriental instruments and a wide variety of percussion. So, I thought, this is how it should be done. The voices imitated a sort of Middle Eastern quality, which seemed right for the environs and what I then thought was the Moorish inspiration of the melodies.

Then I discovered a CD recorded by Jordi Savall and his group ‘La Capella Real de Catalunya’ and Hesperion XX (Astrée E8508), which was more reserved, with more singers but with a smaller, more carefully chosen orchestration for the songs. Also, unlike Paniagua, Savall was willing to miss out verses the repetition of which can become tedious and the omission of which offers a chance for the director to add even more wildly vivid instrumental colourings. Since then these pieces have normally been done in such a way.

What must be remembered is that all that survives is the melodic line. Unusually this manuscript was notated in such a way that rhythmic values are also indicated which is so very helpful in the performance of these pieces and of other thirteenth century repertoire. The form of the songs tend towards the virelai which has a refrain repeated after every verse and a differing melody for the verse. The most famous, and recorded here is Rosa das rosas transcribed, as were all of the songs, many years ago by Higini Anglès. The simple beauty of these tunes can so easily get lost in all of the ‘orchestration’, which haunts the versions mentioned.

Now this new recording throws a different light on the music. I am utterly taken with the simplicity of approach by this small group and the effortless beauty of the voices. I have never enjoyed this music more. We can now see these melodies as a mix of Andalusian-Moorish inspired, Troubadour and Trouvère melodies and the stricter modality of church music. So the approach adopted by sopranos Blaziková and Kabátková is perfectly in keeping.

The voices of Blaziková and Kabátková are beautifully matched. Sometimes they sing in a gorgeously blended unison and then peel off to divide a song between them, often line-by-line or verse-by-verse as in the longest track Santa Maria amar. In U alguen a Jesucristo one adds a lower line in a sort of free organum in the middle verse and in Sen calor (which just has two accompanimental chords) in real organum for the last verse. Their usual accompaniment is harp and psaltery and they do not make unusual vocal noises to capture what some might say are the untamed singers of a pre-conceived medievalism. In the case of Entre Av’e Eva the performance is unaccompanied. Sometimes, as in Pera tiller gran perfia it is instrumental only and that means harps, psaltery and percussion. Sometimes the instrumentalists break up the otherwise purely vocal verses particularly where stanzas have been omitted - simple but effective. Incidentally you will notice an instrument called ‘dulce melos’ which plays on seven tracks including one its own Para toller gran perfia. This is usually thought to be as a sort of keyboard but the photo of the group in the booklet seems to show a hammer dulcimer.

I have no hesitation in commending this natural and airily recorded CD whole-heartedly. All texts are supplied in the original and in English with a useful essay by Manuel Pedro Ferreira and the whole presented in neat cardboard casing. So consequently it is my Recording of the Month.

Gary Higginson



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