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La Ruta de la Seda: Oriente y el Mediterránneo (The Silk Road: The Orient and the Mediterranean)
Capella de Ministrers
Lluis Vich Vocalis
Cheng Yu, pipa (China); Sazed Ul Alam, sitar, ghatam, tabla (India); Kaveh Sarvarian, nay persa, tombak (Persia); Aziz Samsaoui, ud, qanun (Marruecos).
rec. 2016, DBC Studios, Centre Cultural La Nau, Valencia
Sung texts in the original languages, plus translations in Valencian, Spanish, French and English.
Essays in Valencian, Spanish, French and English.
Book [124pp]
CAPELLA DE MINISTRERS CDM1743 [56:56 & 62:44]

Whenever - which is never often enough - I am able to get to Tuscany, Sicily or Andalucia, one of my self-welcoming rituals is to buy some fresh grapes or tomatoes from the local food market. The first bite of one of these is a literally sensational experience, in which the whole mouth, the taste buds and the brain are flooded with intense richness and metaphorical colour. It is a moment of revival and, in the deepest sense re-freshment. Whenever I first listen to a recording by Carles Magraner and his ensemble Capella de Ministrers (especially one which, like La Ruta de la Seda, embraces the music of several times and cultures), I experience the aural equivalent of this refreshment, the ears and brain flooded with intense and distinctive sounds, experiences of a world very different from that of my own.

There have, of course, been other CDs devoted to the idea of the Silk Road, but this one by Carles Magraner is, I think, unique. La Ruta de la Seda doesn’t, as many have done, simply use the idea of the Silk Road as the justification for a more or less random collection of ‘exotic’ music. As with so much of what Magraner and the Capella de Ministreres do, this project is very firmly grounded in specifics – specifics which have a direct relevance to the ensemble and its director. The ‘Silk Road’ is a convenient name coined in the nineteenth century by the German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen to designate the complex of historic routes which linked China with Europe and so became “routes along which pilgrims and warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been sold, and ideas exchanged, adapted and refined” (Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015). Frankopan’s brilliant and magisterial book is a remarkable achievement, but at more than 600 pages will perhaps be daunting for many – (von Richthofen’s coinage was actually “Seidenstraßen” – silk roads, hence Frankopan’s title). James A. Milward’s The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013); provides a briefer, but informative and thought-provoking read and another good starting point is the website of the Unesco Silk Roads Project.

Magraner and the Capella de Ministrers are based in Valencia, which was first a major point of entry into Europe of the silk traded along these routes from China, and then of the manufacture and export of silk, once the secrets of its production had been discovered. The first worms and mulberry leaves from China reached Valencia via Al-Andalus. The necessary mulberry trees were cultivated in Valencian market-gardens and the fabric was made in the city, especially in the neighbourhood of El-Pilar, formerly known as Velluters, (the name is related to the Valencian word ‘velut’ (velvet). The modern visitor to Valencia can still see buildings connected with the great days of Valencian silk-making – notably the Lonja de la Seda (Silk Market) or Mercaderes (Merchants Market) and the Colegio del arte mayor de la Seda, now The Silk Museum.

For Magraner, born (in 1962) and bred in the environs of Valencia, ‘La Ruta de la Sede’, is no metaphor, but rather a major fact in the history of the city to which he is so deeply attached. It is part of the sense of the specific in the programme he has constructed for this recording that a number of the musical items it includes (e.g. ‘In sericis proedere’ (Disc 1, track 4), ‘La galena y el mar’ (II, 5), ‘A la vora de la mar’ (II,7), ‘Un fil de soie’ (II,9) and ‘Cantiga de la Seda’ (III, 10) actually set texts which are about the importance and symbolism of silk. The shape of the programme devised by Magraner is typically careful and intelligent. As the track list below shows, the music on these two CDs essentially follows a movement from East (China) to West (Valencia) – but not in one single, uninterrupted sweep. Section I (made up of the first four tracks on CD1) takes us from Tang Dynasty China to Istanbul, via India and Iran. Section II opens in Baghdad and moves through North Africa to Spain. Section III covers some of the same territory as the two earlier sections, but in terms of the movements of one particular traveller (initially from West to East) on the Silk routes – Marco Polo. Section IV imagines, musically, the journey of silk and all the other cultural exchanges for which it stands as a cipher from Byzantium to the great cities of northern Italy. Section V considers the Islamic and Jewish presences and influences around the Christian Mediterranean. Sections VI and VII concentrate on the ‘silken’ world of Spain through, for example, the cantigas collected - and according to some accounts composed - by Alfonso X of Castile and León (1252-1254), known then and now as Alfonso El Sabio (‘the Wise’), and on the importance of silk in Barcelona and Valencia. It was also very important in the development of Murcia, one of my favourite cities of southern Spain.

This musical ‘route’ and its significance are discussed in two substantial essays in the beautifully produced and multilingual book which encases these two CDS. The first, ‘Valencia and the Medieval Mediterranean on the Silk Road’ is by Professor Germán Navarro; the second ‘The Music on the Silk Road: The Orient and the Mediterranean’ is by Carles Magraner himself. Both are readable, unpretentious and illuminating.

In addition to the goods (of which silk was only one) traded along ‘the silk roads’, these routes also facilitated – or, perhaps one should say, made inevitable – exchanges and interactions of many other kinds, involving philosophical and religious ideas, crafts (such as the making of paper) and technologies, literary themes and forms, musical ideas and instruments. The array of instruments played on these discs by Magraner and the Capella de Ministrers is, in effect, an audible enactment of the dialogue between different traditions and practices. The accompanying booklet lists such instruments as the bulgarí and the baglama (both of them Turkish forms of the long-necked lute), the sanxian (a Chinese three-stringed lute) and the pipa (a Chinese lute with a pear-shaped body), the zaz-cura (a smaller version of the baglama); the ud or oud  the Arab / Persian ancestor of the western lute (al-Ud becoming lute); Persian instruments, such as the ney or nay (an end-blown flute) and the qānūn (a kind of zither). Here, too, are the zanfoña and the organistrum (two forms of the hurdy gurdy), plus many others. In purely musical terms, Magraner and the Capella de Ministrers are demonstrating what a historian such as James A. Milward makes clear in a learned article such as ‘The Silk Road and the Sitar: Finding Centuries of Sociocultural Exchange in the History of an Instrument’ (Journal of Social History, 52:2, 2018, pp. 206-233).

The sound-world created on La Ruta de la Seda is astonishingly beautiful and various. In a project so well documented in many respects, it is strange that no details are given as to precisely which instruments are played on specific tracks – though, of course, one can often make an informed guess. La Ruta de la Seda isn’t, however, all about instruments – it is also, of necessity, about languages and voices.

The male voices of Lluis Vich Vocalis are impressively adaptable, especially fine in their interpretation of the Byzantine chant ‘Axion Estin’ (CD I, track 12) and in their contribution to ‘Vernans rosa’ (II, 4). All three of the female soloists are excellent; unfortunately, the documentation does not tell us who sings on which track. I suspect that Iman Kandoussi is heard in ‘Luna nueva’ (I, 5), Mara Andrada in ‘La galena y el mar’ (II, 4) and Èlia Casanova on ‘Vernans rosa’ (II, 4).

There are abundant musical delights throughout these two discs. Some I have mentioned already; others include the irresistibly infectious dance ‘Açoch’ (II, 6); ‘Tawn al-hamama’ (I, 7), a response to a passage from Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah (‘The Collar of the Dove’) a treatise on love, in Arabic (c.1020), by Ibn Hazam (994-1064), one of the leading thinkers of Islamic Spain; ‘Danza y cancion persa’ (I, 9), where the fierce sound of the  shofar adds a strange, almost barbaric element; and, very different, the delicate ‘Yizhou’ (I, 10) – the title presumably alludes to the beautiful landscape of the Yizhou district in China. But, in truth, almost every track on the 2 CDs could be cited as a ‘musical delight’.

A project such as this is, by its very nature, celebratory and affirmative. It celebrates those virtues which are identified by UNESCO in connection with its Silk Roads Project – ‘Dialogue, Diversity & Development’. But, of course, though it need not be discussed here, the Silk Roads have not always functioned as creative forces for good. In the second paragraph of this review I quoted Peter Frankopan on the positive power of the silk roads. In a spirit of balance it is only fair that I should quote another of his observations about the silk roads: “They have carried not only prosperity, but also death and violence, disease and disaster” – a warning that we shouldn’t idealise in too facile a manner this extraordinary force in the cultural history of the world.

Glyn Pursglove

I. Serínda o la tierra de los Seres (Serinda or the country of the Seres)

(From the land of silk in the Far East to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire)
1. Oda to the willow (Manuscript of the Tang Dynasty (10th century) [2:57]
2. Resham. (Raga from the peninsula of Hindustan) (12th century) [4:32]
3. Kārwānsarā. (Carvanserai, Persia) (5:57]
4. In sericis procedure – Antiphonary from Istanbul (Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi, Istanbul, Deissman 42) (c.1360) [4:02]
II - La llegada de Al-Andalús (The Arrival of Andalusia)
5. Luna nueva. (Poem by Al-Hayay, 857-922). Improvisation in Makam Sika mode) [4:41]
6. Ya Wahid Alghid. Moaxakha de Egipto (Poetry of Egypt) [4:40]
7. Tawn al-hamama. El collar de la paloma (lines from ‘The Collar of the Dove’ by Ibn Hazm, Xàtiva, 1023 [3:05]
8. Rachika Alkad. Canción granhatí argelina (Traditional Algerian Song, Ziryab, 11th Century) [5:25]
III - Marco Polo (The great silk cities of the East in the 13th century)
9. Danza y canción persa. Ey mahe man (Persian dance and song. Zur/Oh my moon!) [6:18]
10. Yizhou - Cui Lingqin. Il Milione (Il Milione.The Book of the Wonders of the World) [3:10]
11. La toscana. Saltarello. (Saltarello – 14th century Italian manuscript. MS Add 29987) [4:44]
12. Axion Estin: Byzantine chant [3:00]
13. Cathay. El viaje de Marco Polo (Cathay. The journey of Marco Polo) [4:18]
CD 2
IV - De Bizancio a Italia (From Byzantium to Italy – The Art of Silk Travels from Byzantium to the northern Italian Cities: Venice, Florence and Genoa).
1.Cantiga de Bizancio (Byzantine Canticle, CSM265, 13th century) [3:20]
2. Perla mya cara. Lauda italiana (‘My precious pearl’. Italian laud, Codex Cordiforme, c.1475) [5:18]
3. Tarz-I Cihân Saz Semâsi. (Traditional Ottoman Dance) [5:37]
4. Vernans Rosa. (‘Flourishing Rose’. S. Colombano di Bobbio Monastery) (Turin manuscript, Biblioteca Nazionale, F.1.4 / Florence, Banco Rari 19) [5:13]
V - Senderos judíos y conversos (Jewish and Convert silk dealers: Heirs of the Muslim tradition throughout all the Christian Mediterranean).
5. La galana el mar. Romance sefardí. (The bride and the sea. Sephardic Romance: Traditional song of Thessalonica) [5:54]
6. Açoch. Danza de las tres culturas (Açoch. Dance of the three cultures) [2:50]
VI - Las cantigas - Trovadores y trouvèrs. Occitania, Castilla, Galicia y Portugal. (The Cantigas – Troubadours and trovers. Occitania, Castile, Galicia and Portugal).
7. A la vora de la mar. Tradicional (‘At the edge of the sea’. Valencian traditional song) [4:20]
8. Brocat i dança. Cantiga de Santa María (Brocat i dança – Canticle of Holy Mary, CSM 41/119, 13th century [4:23]
9. Un fil de soie. Chanson de toile. (‘Bele Yolanz’ - ‘A silk thread’. A weaving song. Anonymous 13th century) [5:28]
10. Cantiga de la seda. Cantiga de Santa María (Cantiga of silk. Cantiga de Santa Maria, CSM 18, 13th century) [7:53]: the silk company of Barcelona,
VII - La Corona de Aragón (The Crown of Aragon. Silk in the 15th century in the Crown of Aragon the Art de Velluters and the Lonja de Valencia).
11. Mandilatos. Danza tradicional de Tracia (Traditional dance of Thrace). [4:42]
12. Al jorn del judici. El cant de la Sibilla (On the Day of Judgement. The Song of the Sibyl) [7:40]

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