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Alfonso cantigas ACD285
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Alfonso X El Sabio, King of Castile (1221-1284)
Cantigas de Santa Maria
Early Music Ensemble ‘Scandicus’/Piotr Flis
rec. 2018, Church of St. Martin in Torowskie Góry, Poland

It is rather a pity that this disc only appeared now, but it is timely: the past November marked the 800th anniversary of the birth of Alfonso, a great and cultured king. He may have composed some of these songs but he certainly paid for, and had beautifully copied, about 420 pieces, most with music, into a lavish manuscript. The King’s devotion to the Virgin Mary is the reason for this mammoth task. In Santa Maria, valed’ ai Sennor he tells us how she healed him of a great sickness.

The age of the troubadour, devoted to his lady, also manifested itself in the Cantigas. Each song represents a story of either devotion to the Virgin Mary or a miracle which she performed. The thirteen recorded here show a wide variety of extraordinary legends which were recorded during King Alfonso’s long reign and probably before. The texts of the Cantigas, in Galician-Portuguese, are not far removed from the traditions of the troubadours. The prologue, which Alfonso may well have written and which is recorded here, lists the skills and knowledge needed to compose well.

A typical miracle would be the one of the father whose son dies but who has suddenly to leave his home without burying him (Ontre toda las vertudes). On his return, after praying to the Virgin, he finds his house restored and his son resurrected. Aquela que a séu Fillo concerns a lady whose dough, after prayer, was multiplied many times over to help feed her family and friends at the time of famine.

Many groups and singers have tackled this repertoire. I am fond of Jordi Savall’s versions with Hespèrion XX, and of the readings by Eduardo Paniagua. This disc marks a slightly different approach. This group of Polish musicians come more from a folk tradition. That is demonstrated by their vocal quality and their chosen instruments seen in the manuscript illustrations: fiddle, Romanesque harp, citole, symphonia, recorders, an oud and various percussion. All this adds colour and interest to the presentations of these mostly simple modal tunes. The oud brings to mind the Arab and Moorish influence felt across medieval Spain; the instruments were also brought back by the Crusaders.

Sometimes ‘Scandicus’ employ vocal drones, as in Sancta Maria amar. They also improvise instrumental interludes between many of the verses. The sound they make reminds me of a group of Northern Spanish singers I heard under an arch in Santiago de Compostella only recently. That is why I feel this album offers a strong sense of authenticity. ‘Scandicus’, by all accounts, have had this music in their repertoire for a number of years and are still discovering new ways of presenting it.

The colourful booklet contains an essay by Piotr Flis, who is the group’s artistic director and plays a variety of instruments. He gives the background story to most of the thirteen songs. The texts are in the original, disappointingly with just a précis in Polish and English. There are photographs of the performers.

Gary Higginson

Prologue - Porque frobar
Como póden (CSM 166)
Madre de Deus (CSM 422)
4.Dized, ai trobores (CSM 260)
Aquela que a séu Fillo 9CSM 258)
Alegria, alegria (CSM 425)
Ontre toda las vertudes (CMS 323)
Santa Maria amar (CSM 7)
Miragres fremosos (CSM 37)
Ai, Santa Maria (CSM 79)
Rosa das rosas (CMS 10)
Santa Maria, valed’, ai Sennor (CSM 279)
Quantos en Santa Maria (CMS 66)

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