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- The Cantigas of Alfonso X, El Sabio
"... the recording is well done, with instruments and voices realistic and nicely balanced."
The Cantigas of Alfonso El Sabio appear not to be commercially very viable. Of the many versions which have appeared, even those which postdate the original issue of this Nimbus recording, only a handful remain in the catalogue
King Alfonso contrived to bring together the cream of Christian, Moslem and Jewish scholars and musicians, for which he was graced with the title el Sabio, the Wise Man. His patronage of Arab scholars helped the Christian world to rediscover the lost works of Greek antiquity, including scientific texts which had been preserved in Arabic. Today the only surviving reminders of the harmony which briefly existed in medieval Spain are provided by the Mozarabic liturgy, celebrated in a side chapel in Toledo Cathedral, and the splendid manuscripts which contain the Cantigas. The Mozarabic liturgy contains the text of the Mass which was tolerated in Arab-controlled medieval Spain, in sharp contrast with the lack of tolerance shown centuries later by Ferdinand and Isabella when they gained control. Sadly, Alfonso’s enlightened attitude was not combined with political nous and did not prevent his downfall.
The Cantigas, some probably by Alfonso himself, are a collection of 425 poems in Galician dialect, closer to Portuguese than to modern Spanish, recounting miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary, Cantigas de miragre. Each tenth piece contains the rubric Esta é de loor de Santa Maria – ‘This is in praise of Saint Mary’ – known as Cantigas de loor, or Songs of praise. Alongside the cult of fin amors, or courtly love, the cult of the Virgin Mary was developing in the late 12th and 13th centuries. Guiraut de Bornelh’s Reis glorios, the final piece on another Martin Best Nimbus recording which I recently recommended, Forgotten Provence (NI5445) shows this process developing in the troubadour homeland of Provence; the Cantigas show it in full spate.
In Rosa das Rosas the Virgin is addressed in language which would be equally appropriate in courtly love: she is the rose of all roses, the mistress whom a man must love, the lady whose troubadour the singer wishes to be: "Esta dona que tenno por Sennor/e de que quero seer trobador."
Martin Best provides his own logic by opening the Nimbus CD with a pilgrim song, Santa María, Strella do dia, in which Mary is addressed as the day-star from on high which will serve as the pilgrims’ guide. The Martin Best Ensemble split Entre Av’e Eva between tracks 11 and 22. I can see the logic behind this arrangement – each half of the programme ends with this almost archetypal piece of medieval Mariolatry. The piece is based around the very common medieval pun on Ave, ‘hail’, the angel’s opening words to the Virgin Mary, and Eva, the Latin version of the name of Eve. As the first Eva let down the whole human race, so Gabriel’s Ave to Mary marks its redemption.
The Nimbus CD contains a greater number of the loores in praise of the Virgin Mary, eleven of the 22 tracks; the Naxos contains only three such pieces out of 13 tracks. As the loores count for only one in ten of the complete Cantigas, the Naxos recording therefore offers a more rounded, though still distorted, indication of their place in the whole collection.
On some recordings of medieval music, one feels that the performers have gone out of their way to over-characterise and stress the rough edges of the music; that is not the case with this version. Since Alfonso was inconsiderate enough not to leave us his own definitive recording of the Cantigas, there is clearly room for a choice of interpretations. Even in their own time, these works were probably performed in a variety of ways, depending on the availability of singers and instrumentalists. The booklet lists the instruments employed and makes the point that the instruments employed are all depicted in manuscripts of the Cantigas.
The notes in the Nimbus booklet are brief but informative.
Brian Wilson, Musicweb-international.com