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ALFONSO X of Spain (El Sabio) (1221-1284)
Cantigas of Santa Maria
Martin Best Ensemble
rec. 1984, All Saint’s Tooting, UK
NIMBUS NI5081 [51.30]

When Martin Best set off on the research and recording of this music he was really ‘ploughing his own furrow’. Whilst it might be true that some recordings of this repertoire had emerged in the 70’s and earlier his was the first which tried to use superbly clear authentic pronunciation (Gallo-Portuguese) and also the instruments, of which there is a wide variety, that can be found in the beautifully decorated and gorgeous manuscripts.

You will notice that there are twenty-two short tracks none much more than three minutes. Later recordings spend more time on each song by presenting more verses or by adding instrumental interludes so there are fewer pieces on a disc; and that approach does allow more of a sense of the space required to gain a full idea of how these ‘Cantigas’ may have been received.

Following on from Best many groups moved in to add their interpretations of the pieces. The most prolific being Eduardo Paniagua an his Musica Antigua (mostly on Sony) with easily up to twenty discs in his collection there is also Jordi Savall’s group Hesperion XX with a collection of thirteen pieces on Astrée (E8508). More recently (2015) Hana Kabátková with her group brought out a beautiful CD of nineteen songs (LPH 017) but there have been several others as well.

It’s difficult to know how much we can attribute these 400 or so ‘Cantigas’ to the great and enlightened king. Alfonso El Sabio – the wise - was a polymath and highly cultured and encouraged learning including the sciences. He seems to have been a prolific author and may well have composed a great many melodies although many others were in circulation before his time.

The poems and stories tell of miracles associated with the Virgin Mary who is prayed to and who heals or who brings to life dead or ill children, animals and birds and even steaks! One of my favourite stories is that of the lost steak ordered by a group of pilgrims but stolen by another traveller. After praying to the virgin the steak jumps out of his trunk. I wonder if it were edible ? Another is a greedy man who has a rabbit bone stuck in his throat, after a prayer the virgin was able to force him to cough it up and he was never so gluttonous again.

The melodies or more easy to assimilate, ‘catchy’ one might say, than those contemporary ones from the Troubadours of southern France and the Trouvères of the north, they are simpler using a smaller pitch range and recurring regularly, mostly because the songs use the virelai form which largely consists of a verse and a repeated chorus. They were intended for a general not a professional performance I suspect.

The performances are some of the best that the ensemble ever achieved. There is an impeccable blend especially between the solo voice and the angelic female voices. Amongst my favourite tracks is the incredibly beautiful Rosa das Rosas and the brilliantly colourful Santa Maria loei. Sometimes the verses and storyline are communicated via speech over instrumental improvisations.
This is a disc I am glad to have and will play quite regularly. There is a useful and concise essay by Martin Best and all texts have been clearly translated by Jack Sage and some parts of the stories are summarised. The resonant and atmospheric recording is ideal and made in the great cavernous church in busy Tooting.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Santa Maria, Strella do dia (No 100) [2.40]
Non sofre Santa Maria (No 159) [2.55]
Non e mui gran maravilla (No 294) [2.38]
Santa Maria amar (No7) [2.53]
A Santa Maria dadas sejan (No 140) [0.51]
Quen bġa a dona querra loar [160] (3.29]
Muit e mais a piadade (No 201) [2.58]
A Virgen, que Deus Madre est (No 322) [1.24]
Virgen, Madre Gloriosa (No 340) [2.35]
Purque ben Santa Maria (No 327) [2.27]
Entre Av’e Eva (No 60) [1.11]
Se ome fezer de grado (No 207) [1.20]
Fremosos miragres (No 352) [4.51]
Por nos, Virgen Madre (No 250) [2.32]
Ben pode, Santa Maria (No 189) [1.35]
O que en Santa Maria (No 216) [2.56]
Ay Santa Maria (No 79) [2.59]
Santa Maria loei (No 200) [0.54]
Muito, foi noss’ amigo (No 210) [2.08]
Rosa das Rosas (No 330) [3.28]
Santa Maria, strella do dia (No 100) [1.41]
Entre Av’e Eva (No 60) [1.35]

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