Gabriel's Message (Cantigas de Santa Maria Vol V)
The Renaissance Players
directed by Winsome Evans
$23 (Australian dollars)
Buywell - iTunes
|The Renaissance Players, directed by Winsome Evans, was founded 48 years ago at the University of Sydney. It has a nucleus of nine to ten musicians (singers and instrumentalists) which is varied according to the needs of particular performances. In addition, the group contains a poetry reader, and one or two miming clowns. The Renaissance Players has established itself as the most accomplished and widely known professional early music group in Australia. Their sense|
of musical style, colourful costuming, technical ability and vital presentation are their landmark qualities.
These two CDs are volumes IV and V of the Cantigas de Santa Maria as recorded by The Renaissance Players. The Cantigas are mediaeval manuscripts written in mediaeval Galician-Portuguese during the reign of Alfonso X “El Sabio” (1221-1284). The collection consists of 420 poems with musical notation and is the largest collections of songs from the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary is mentioned in every song, which shows her playing an important role in earthly matters.
Pillar of Wisdom (Cantigas de Santa Maria, Volume IV) is dedicated to the late Kathleen Kulp Hill, from the school of mediaeval Romance languages at the University of Kentucky, USA. Gabriel's Message (Cantigas de Santa Maria, Volume V) is dedicated to the late Gough Whitlam, the revered former Prime Minister of Australia and strong supporter of the arts.
|1. Macar poucos cantares (C. 401)|
2. Beeyto foi o dia (C. 411)
3. Poi-las figuras fazen dos santos renenbranca (C. 136)
4. Porque trobar e cousa en que jaz (Prologo B)
5. Pois que Deus quis da Virgen Fillo (C. 38)
|Consisting of about 400 songs, the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of Saint Mary) are a set of beautifully preserved illuminated manuscripts from medieval Spain that venerate the Virgin Mary. A figure of enormous devotion during the 13th century when they were composed, she was worshipped as a miracle maker who could save any stricken soul, whether beggar, thief or king. Early music groups attempting to re-create these songs face the perennial problem of having to fill in gaps in what we know about performance practice this long ago. Winsome Evans, director of the Renaissance Players, points to the need when interpreting the Cantigas de Santa Maria of recognising that Spain was a melting pot of Christian, Sephardic Jewish and Moorish cultures. One may expect to find a corresponding amalgam of musical styles in her group’s series of recordings. In Pillar of Wisdom and Gabriel’s Message. volumes four and five respectively, the Renaissance Players have devised arrangements that are attractive and securely scholarly, but at times they go too far out on a limb. The breathy tones, ornamental flourishes and general fluency of soprano Mina Kanaridis lend conviction to her singing and make her the standout musician. Sounding only distantly plausible are shawms and zurna that join together in raucous unison, evoking traditional outdoor Turkish music. A strident, nasal vocal quality to the female choruses in 8eeyto foi o dia (Blessed and Fortunate), in which they appear to borrow from Bulgarian or Macedonian folk singing, sticks out. The Sydney group exhibits much imaginative flair. Evans excels on reeds, harp and gemshorn. Sometimes she plays these instruments simultaneously, thanks to some cheeky overdubbing.|
The Australian February 7, 2015
These two discs conclude a five CD series drawing from the extensive collection of songs in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to King Alfonso X (1221-1284) of Castile. Every one of the 420 poems with musical settings in the manuscript makes mention of the Virgin Mary, placing her in the narrative often in direct interaction with Alfonso himself.
At a cross-roads of religions and cultures in times of changing fortunes, 13th century Castile was Christian society with a degree of tolerance of the cohabiting Judaism and Islam. Alfonso was especially keen to surround himself with scholars, philosophers and artists from the East and the West, believing that Spain’s ultimate destiny was “to make heterogeneous cultural links”. It is in that spirit of cross cultural learning and understanding that Winsome Evans has selected the instrumental and vocal elements in the setting of songs from the Cantigas.
The provenance of the recordings in these two discs is mysterious . . . a detail lacking from the otherwise detailed booklets. The project dates back to 1994, whence Evans was in discussion with Kathleen Kulp Hill of the University of Kentucky who translated the vernacular texts, and to whom the Pillar of Wisdom is dedicated. The first three discs in the series were released in 1995 on the Walsingham Classics label. These two CDs, on Tall Poppies, were released last year. A compilation CD of selected songs across the entire series entitled Of Numbers and Miracles was released in the US on the Celestial Harmonies label in 2001. The implication is that the entire series was recorded in 1994/95, but only the first three CDs released at that time. The recordings for these present CDs could therefore date from that time. For anybody keen on collecting the whole series, there might be some difficulties in obtaining the first three discs, as The Renaissance Players’ website indicates that all three are “Out of Print”.
A common trait with all The Renaissance Players recordings is the emphasis on unique instrumental colours, rhythms and vocal styles in combination, often with strong driving additive rhythms. For the most part, the settings for the songs in these last two CDs in the series is simple—a small number of contrasting instrumental and vocal textures. One particularly striking vocal texture features sparingly in the extended piece ‘Bẽeyto foi o dia’ in Gabriel’s Message is three high sopranos in parallel harmonies underscored with the rich rasp of the unique voice of Mara Kiek on an unshifting drone note. The result is like a vocal hurdy-gurdy, and well matches the bright sound of the reed instruments. That particular song, the longest in the entire series at nearly 24 minutes, maintains interest through dramatic changes of texture from one stanza to the next through the alternate use of speech, declamatory free style singing, and strong driving rhythms.
A primary focus throughout the two CDs is the beautiful voice of Mina Kanaridis, who speaks/sings the medieval Galician/Portugese text with a definably Greek colouration and the use of gliding microtone melismas to increase tension at the end of phrases.
Although these recordings lean more toward a story-telling style than other Renaissance Players CDs, several of the cantigas are presented instrumentally, and many of the sung cantigas close with “an instrumental after-dance”. Evans takes advantage of the opportunity in these moments to inject some typical Renaissance Players energy and excitement. This collection of recordings are haunting, beautiful and exciting!
Anthony Linden Jones musictrust.com.au February 2015
These recordings by the Renaissance Players give us a pair of windows into the musical world of the Iberian peninsula before the Reconquista. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of over 400 poems (mostly Marian devotional) set to music, provides a taste of the sophisticated 13th century court of Alfonso X of Castille. The disc entitled "Pilgrimage to Montserrat" in turn takes its inspiration from the Llibre Vermell, a manuscript that contains the songs of pilgrims who visited one of the most famous Christian shrines of the time. They came from all classes, and from all over Europe; so that while the Cantigas are upscale, some of the anonymous monks who transcribed the Llibre Vermell probably thought at least a few of the songs they included counted as little more than slumming.
That was to be expected. Strange people, some with absurd manners from far away, visited Montserrat daily. The swarming multitudes that made the arduous pilgrimage under Papal dispensations, often in larger groups to gain protection from bandit gangs, accepted and lost people along they moved along. They traded stories and music to make the months or even years of travel pass more quickly. Ten of their song and dances, or cants de romeus, occupy six of the manuscript's folios, and survive today. These are included on the Montserrat album, along with five further medieval selections (one, presented in two versions) that emphasize both dance, and the circle, a feature Winsome Evans discusses at some length in her liner notes. Finally, there are two versions of a piece composed in 2002 to honor the late filmmaker, Robin Anderson, whose documentary of the previous year, Facing the Music, showed in dramatic fashion the constant efforts to make financial ends meet at Sydney University's prestigious Music Department.
Though the Montserrat material differs greatly in several important respects from the pair of Cantigas discs, they all share some characteristics. One is the great attention paid to establishing a contextual framework. Evans notes and justifies an amalgam of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish elements used to interpret the Cantigas, by the nearly eight centuries of religiously and culturally diversified rule in Spain before Alfonso X came to Castille's throne. In the Montserrat disc in turn she emphasizes pan-European medieval symbols, a cultural constant over many centuries that our age with its endless ephemeral, ad-driven symbols can't begin to comprehend. The constructivist masses of Ockeghem, with their numerological substrata, are only one example of this, but Evans (who doesn't neglect medieval numerology, either) focuses on the circular structure of the cants, and the sacred dancing that many pilgrims employed while organizing her larger, danceable sub-structures that are stylistically in line with what we know of the times.
The liner notes I've mentioned are an important part of the package. They are simply the best I've encountered for the period—and not just because of the copious detail they provide, though they never talk down to the reader, or assume a complete disinterest of such matters as modes, formes fixes, and text structures. Evans uses her notes to illustrate the reasons behind her editorial and performance decisions, rather than to present these decisions as foregone conclusions, turning the listener into an uncritical recipient for a set of ideas.
The only liner notes that come within hailing distance of these derive from a series of 1990s releases by La Reverdie; and their knowledgeable notes invariably cherry-picked the details of history to present their theses as unchallengeable facts. Evans has very definite opinions about how to perform these works, to be sure, but her notes repeatedly go out of their way to mention that her decisions are not definitive. They are certainly well-informed, but in an age when text and music yielded only a guideline to performance, any number of solutions to such matters as structuring, instrumentation, and voicing suggest themselves.
The Renaissance Players numbers under ten musicians for the pair of Cantigas releases we received, and just under 20 for the Montserrat disc, though the difference is largely due to the presence of a chorus on several cuts. Evans varies textures with a range of appropriate period instruments—vielle, shawn, harp, rebec, bells, etc—handled with restraint, so that there's none of "Medieval Stokowski effect" one finds in some other pre-Baroque ensembles. The ornamentation and some modal effects may seem at times unusual, until one remembers that the musicians are treating the Cantigas albums as influenced by several specific non-European sources, and the Montserrat CD by non-Iberian ones. In context, the fit is excellent. It's possible to argue against one or another of the more inventive treatments on the Montserrat CD, such as taking the vocal line's musical patterning in Ad mortem festinamus as an invitation for high drama to which the late European Middle Ages were prone. But there's no denying its effectiveness in performance, or the way Evans reaches her goal without treading over the line into Orff-like anachronisms.
Several of us at Fanfare have remarked in the past that pre-Baroque groups frequently seem to care very little about the quality of singing on display, as long as the instrumentals are technically first rate. That's not the case, here. All three releases are good in this respect, with the best vocals coming from lyric soprano Mina Kanaridis on the pair of Cantigas CDs. I can't speak to the size of her voice, but in all other respects she impresses: warmth of tone, excellent focus, even production, forward enunciation, and easy melismatic agility as required. It was this mix of qualities rather than any similarity of sound that bring to mind Ninon Vallin in her few, heavily arranged folk recordings of the 1930s, while listening to Kanaridis. And it's to the latter's credit that she can sustain such a comparison.
The Renaissance Players as a whole, though, have nothing to fear from other ensembles investigating the music of the period. Their earthy, energized approach in all three discs is well-researched for content and presentation, and always fascinating in performance. If you want to start with just one, I'd suggest checking out the Montserrat album, which is a candidate for my 2015 Want List at this time. But really, you can't go wrong with any of the three.
© Barry Brenesal
Fanfare January 2015
The Cantigas de Santa Maria is a collection of over 400 songs compiled between about 1270 and 1290 under the direction of King Alfonso X. Alfonso was King of Castile and León and an outstanding patron of the arts, sciences and culture. Indeed, it is possible that some of the creative input for the collection was his own.
The word ‘cantiga’ was widely used in the Iberian peninsular up to about 1450 to describe a song. Other than two far smaller extant collections, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is the only surviving music from the cantiga tradition. There are four surviving manuscripts of Cantigas de Santa Maria and three of these contain pictorial miniatures that decorate the manuscript, the whole forming one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Middle Ages.
The cantigas are mostly ballad-style accounts of miracles performed by the Virgin Mary (cantiga de miragres), but every tenth is a hymn in her praise (cantiga de loor). Perhaps what is most striking about the cantiga tradition is its language: Portuguese-Galician. This separates it from liturgical music in Latin. Indeed, it is nearly certain that the cantigas were intended for performance in secular settings as well as in church.
The two new releases from the Renaissance Players under the direction of Winsome Evans, Pillar of Wisdom and Gabriel’s Message, are the latest additions to their recordings dedicated to the vast collection of Cantigas de Santa Maria. Their previous recordings (Songs for a Wise King, Maria Morning Star, and Mirror of Light) were recorded between 1996 and 1998, however, and with a different label, Walsingham Classics. Now with Tall Poppies Records, the Renaissance Players have added a further 15 cantigas to their exploration of this repertoire.
The liner notes are particularly necessary for recordings of early music. Not only can it be used to provide listeners with an understanding of the music’s historical background, but it can be also used to explain performance decisions. For listeners new to the repertoire, there is a level of presumed knowledge. Some basic facts – what the word ‘cantiga’ means for example –are not given. The liner notes do state that further historical information can be found in the liner notes of their earlier discs. But given the gap of over fifteen years since their last recording, I am not convinced that they can rely on listeners to have bought their previous volumes.
The information provided is, however, interesting and comprehensive. As well as an English translation of the poetry, some further information is given for each individual cantiga. The explanation of the symbolic meaning of Jewish names in A madre do que livrou on the Pillar of Wisdom disc, for example, is particularly enlightening. It highlights the many layers of meaning that the cantigas had to contemporary audiences, which would otherwise be lost to modern listeners.
The liner notes also outline the performance decisions made for each cantiga. The surviving sources detail very little compared to what we are used to from modern notation, and there is no definite way of transcribing its metre, rhythm and use of melisma. We cannot know what their original performances were like, and they may have varied considerably depending on who was performing them, their setting, or what resources were available. Performances of this repertoire today, therefore, become a creative process. Decisions on which instruments to use, whether it should be sung by male or female voices (if sung at all), and whether the refrain should be repeated after each stanza are all decisions made by the performers.
The liner notes make no claims that these recordings represent the definitive authentic performance of these cantigas. Rather, the Renaissance Players aim to use a variety of performance styles to suggest the different ways in which these songs may have been performed. The Renaissance Players are particularly concerned with drawing out the drama from the cantigas. In Ben com’ aos que van per mar on Pillar of Wisdom, they switch from sung to spoken stanzas. In speaking stanzas three to six, the focus is on the narrative of the poetry. Mixing spoken and sung word emphasises how song and poetry are not two separate things, but can both be used in aid of the drama. Furthermore, their decision to only sing the refrain at the beginning and end of A madre de que livrou on Pillar of Wisdom also serves the drama. Instead they insert harp interludes, which comment upon and provide a moment of reflection away from the drama. I appreciate how the liner notes emphasise that it is possible to perform this cantiga by repeating the refrain after every stanza, but I agree with their decision not to: there are eleven stanzas after all, and hearing the same refrain that many times would become tiring.
Bĕeyto foi o dia on Gabriel’s Message is considerably longer than the other tracks, lasting over twenty minutes. This gives the Renaissance Players scope to explore the cantiga’s dramatic possibilities. For the narrative element, one voice recounts the bulk of the text, whilst different voices share the text to represent Joachim or Anna (the Virgin Mary’s parents). The main soprano singer, Mina Kanaridis, is full of expression, and the improvisatory feel that follows the rhythm of the words provides a feeling of spontaneity. There is a good balance between variation and repetition. The same tune keeps returning, but heard differently each time. Different vocal ornamentation, instrumental accompaniment or number of voices singing, are used to emphasise aspects of the text and changes in mood in the dramatic story. A second, lower female voice, Mara Kiek, is used for the voice of the angel. This has a nasal, exotic tone, and is an unexpected sound for our modern ears. Though it takes some getting used to, it provides an interesting contrast with the main soprano voice. When they combine, the result is something rather mysterious and beautiful.
The performance decisions made by the Renaissance Players were on the whole sensitive, and varied across the fifteen cantigas. It is important that they do not treat their sacred topic too delicately. The instruments chosen for Poi que Deus quis da Virgen Fillo on Gabriel’s Message were rustic and noisy, providing a raw sound. The decision to include a spoken introduction to most of the cantigas, however, was something I did not warm to. Being told what we are about to listen was patronising and unnecessary.
The Pilgrimage to Montserrat is the third recording released by The Renaissance Players with Tall Poppies Records this year. Rather than cantigas, it focuses on the ten pilgrim songs, the cants del romeus contained in the Llibre Vermell (the Red Book), a codex from the library of the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Montserrat in Catalonia. The liner notes explain the history of the pilgrimage to the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria at Montserrat, situated a few miles northwest of Barcelona in Catalonia. The Renaissance Players argue for the possibility that some of the songs may have come from beyond Catalonia or Iberia, sung by pilgrim travellers on the way to the monastery, and this is what lies behind their decision to extend the ten surviving cants del romeus with additional items.
These additional items demonstrate that for the Renaissance Players, this repertoire is still living music. Rota en mai quant li rossignolet chantent was possibly a popular song that pilgrims sang during their long journey to Montserrat. But in Winsome Evans’ arrangement, the entire original melody is only heard once at the beginning, followed by newly composed music. The result is a work that does not sound like something from an old and distant era. Similarly, shrieking and wooping in Los set goyts gives a lively, party atmosphere. This is music that is present. It sounds like a group of players gathering together to play for their own amusement, who could just as easily be from our own time as from 800 years ago.
The Renaissance Players’ treatment of the original cants del romeus further demonstrates that they are not tied to merely replicating the surviving music. Rather, they are eager to make this music their own. In Stella splendens, for example, only seven of the twenty-four stanzas are sung, and newly invented melodies are inserted between them. Their performance is joyfully rhythmic, capturing an energetic mood for this circle-dance song. The Renaissance Players enjoy using diverse instrumentation, including castanets and bells, as well as varying between choir and male duet. The following track, Xeros stella is a newly composed after-dance to Stella. Composed by Evans, she imagines Mediterranean pilgrim musicians taking up Stella’s melody, which is extended into new melodies whose modes and structures are related to their own traditional dance music. It is a boisterous, lively dance. The bombarde has perhaps a harsh sound to the modern ear, but its raw quality makes this music incredibly exciting.
For the Renaissance Players the Cantigas de Santa Maria and the cants del romeus are used as a foundation for creativity. We will never know what an authentic performance of this music should be like (that is, if a single authentic performance even existed). Yet for the Renaissance Players this is no restriction. Their recordings are exciting and unpredictable. For them, this is living music, and it is this that gives these recordings their integrity.
© Hazel Rowland
Fanfare January 2015
This music for a pilgrimage to the mountainside monastery near Barcelona is structured around the 10 songs preserved in the Llibre Vermell, the red book (from its modern binding) that escaped the fire that destroyed the monastery in 1811 at the hands of Napoleon’s army because it was out on loan. (The monks had to buy it back in 1885, not what I would call a “miraculous” return.) An additional eight tracks composed or arranged by Evans based on these and other songs form a tribute to the filmmaker Robin Anderson. The style of singing and playing is similar to other performers who realize a performance style derived from folk and popular idioms. El llibre vermell has been recorded complete over 20 times, but only four or five groups have sung all five verses of “Mariam matrem.” Here verses 1, 4, and 5 are as much as we usually hear, eight minutes’ worth. Given the length of five other songs that run from nine to 14 minutes, it would have been good to hear a little more. The detailed notes tell us about the manuscript, the songs, the role of dance among the pilgrims (reflected in the musical forms), the texts, their poetic structure, and the care with which they have been copied into the booklet. The last is a valuable part of the presentation. Altogether, this is one of the most effective presentations of this source, comparable to Carles Magraner’s version on Licanus, which is complete on one disc. The singing and playing are rousing, marvelously exciting.
The other two discs are volumes 4 and 5 of a series devoted to the cantigas attributed to Alfonso el Sabio. All the sung works are rendered complete, as they have been done more often than not since René Clemencic in 1976 and Thomas Binkley in 1980 began the practice with some of their selections (before that we usually got one or two strophes of a piece). Since 1994 Eduardo Paniagua has been recording an extensive series of cantigas covering more than half of the total, invariably performing each piece complete. I don’t know of another group that has offered a multi-disc traversal of this repertoire since her series began. Evans offers 10 cantigas on Pillar of Wisdom, three instrumental renditions and seven sung complete. On Gabriel’s Message, she has five cantigas, two instrumental and three sung complete. The longest cantiga heard here is “Beeyto foi o dia,” 30 strophes on the second disc playing for almost 24 minutes. The only other version is Eduardo Paniagua’s nominally complete version on The Life of Mary (20:5), also issued as La Vida de Maria (29:3). Since many of the strophes are recited to speed the narrative, it comes in around 15 minutes, while the singer heard here recites only five strophes, the rest being sung. Another cantiga on the same disc is “Pois que Deus,” 11 strophes running over 13 minutes, compared to nine minutes for both Paniagua and Sequentia. “Poilas figuras” on the same disc is also duplicated by Paniagua and Nelly van Ree. On Pillar of Wisdom, the only two cantigas duplicated by Paniagua are among the three instrumental renditions here, so this disc would be valuable even for anyone who might have a complete set of Paniagua’s discs. This is the most desirable of the three discs.
The cantigas are most often sung with a more or less elaborate instrumental accompaniment, based on the clearly portrayed singers and players in the miniatures that illuminate the elaborate manuscripts that preserve this repertoire. In music of the Middle Ages in general, the controversy about the use of instruments is less one-sided, performance practice more evenly divided, but in these works unaccompanied singing has been much less common on discs. Evans’s practice is similar to Paniagua’s, for she has a rich collection of instruments selectively used, one booklet listing 17 instruments, the other 15. But Evans uses her instruments more discreetly than Paniagua and the singers, especially the chorus, enunciate more clearly, so I can follow the text more readily. These two discs are certainly a valuable way of hearing the cantigas, recommended without regard to any others that you might already have. Pillar of Wisdom is especially valuable, for four of the 10 selections have never been recorded complete by my count and the other six are scattered widely, only “Entre Av’e Eva” being thrice duplicated by Brigitte Lesne, Ensemble Unicorn, and Esther Lamandier. The singers seem to my untutored ears to be fluent in the Gallician language. The booklets are very informative and detailed, even if the fifth issue refers back to all four previous issues for additional background information. (The first three are not listed on the Tall Poppies website.) Not having heard anything from Winsome Evans before this, I am mightily impressed.
J. F. Weber
The Cantigas de Santa Maria is one of the most famous collections of music from the Middle Ages. It dates from the time of Alfonso X (1221-1284), who was known as el Sabio ('The Wise' or 'The Learned'). From 1252 until his death he was King of Castile and León. He was highly interested in religious, philosophical, scientific and artistic matters and gathered around him a large circle drawn from those disciplines. Although of firm Christian belief, as the Cantigasshow, he allowed Jews and Muslims to take part in courtly life. The social and political climate was that of relative tolerance, certainly in comparison to what was common at the time.
Sometimes Alfonso is labelled as the composer of these cantigas. Although it is likely that he wrote some of the texts and maybe even composed some melodies, it is highly unlikely that he is the author of the complete collection. It was put together under his guidance, and there can be little doubt that he was strongly involved in the process. That explains why he appears in a number of illuminations that embellish the manuscripts.
To my knowledge this collection has never been recorded complete. That is a shame, considering its qualities, but understandable as it comprises no fewer than 427 pieces. They are all in the vernacular, either Castilian or Galician-Portuguese. There are two kinds of song: those in praise of the Virgin Mary (cantiga de loor) and songs which tell the story of one of the miracles of the Virgin as she comes to the rescue of the faithful (cantiga de miragre). The songs are ordered in groups of ten, each starting with a cantiga de loor, followed by nine cantigas de miragre.
Even scholars who specialize in this kind of music don't know for sure how these songs were performed. Their character and the fact that they are in the vernacular rules out a performance in church. It is likely that they were first and foremost performed at Alfonso's court. However, as Winsome Evans states in her liner-notes, they were "written to impart spiritual and worldly knowledge for the moral edification of all his subjects". One wonders when and where they may have heard them.
The present two discs perfectly illustrate some of the issues at stake as far as interpretation is concerned. Unfortunately the booklets don't go into detail about these matters. We are informed about the way the various songs are performed but not what the considerations were that led to the performing decisions taken.
One of the issues is scoring. All the songs are monophonic and as they have a text a vocal performance is obvious. However, it is generally thought that instruments often participated, either supporting the voice - playing colla voce - or improvising additional parts. The illuminations in the manuscripts of the cantigasshow a whole array of instruments of different kinds. Unfortunately the booklets give no information about the identity of these instruments. The Renaissance Players use various instruments which were or are played in the Near East and in North Africa. This is probably based on the assumption that Muslims were involved in performance of the cantigas and might have used those types of instrument. However, I wonder whether all these instruments already existed in Alfonso's time. Moreover, the fact that instruments are depicted in the manuscript doesn't necessarily imply that they were also used in the performance of the cantigas. By the same token the fact that musicians with different ethnic identities are depicted doesn't prove that these songs were not only performed by Christians but also by Jews and Muslims.
The second issue relates to the liberties which the performers have taken. Most of the songs are divided into a number of stanzas which are followed by a refrain. In many cases the refrain is sung only at the start and at the end, for instance in order not to disrupt the flow of the story. However, these refrains were not added without a purpose. The intention of the writers and/or composers was to underscore the message for the audience using musical means - for instance through repetition - and that was certainly more important than the dramatic flow. The performers also take other liberties, for example the addition of instrumental or even vocal interludes. In A madre de Deus (vol. IV) "[one] of the pairs of interludes is a section of 3-part vocal polyphony, sung a capella to 'na na na'". In my experience this has a trivializing effect.
There are many other sorts of liberty which I find questionable. In the notes to Mais non faz Santa Maria(vol. IV) we read: "The vocal melody is constantly embellished with trills, passaggi, microtonal pitch colourings and dynamics, while the sinfonye interludes between stanzas spotlight the dichromaticism of the fourth degree (perfect 4th falling, tritonal 4th rising) which cause modal ambiguity (ionian or lydian mode?)". I wonder to what extent this is based on performance practices from the time of the cantigas. Microtones, to restrict us to one aspect, were part of Byzantine chant, but on what grounds are they included in these performances? Often I also wondered about the ornamentation which seems too virtuosic considering the character of these songs. I also have my doubts whether that kind of ornament was sung at that time.
As we know little about the way these songs were performed at the time some speculation is an inevitable part of any performance. However, I believe that the performers have taken too many liberties and I doubt whether they are all in line with what might have been practised in those days. Some lovers of medieval music probably won't bother that much about these issues. They may very much enjoy these discs and rightly so considering the level of singing and playing. However, if you prefer a more historical approach it is advisable to look for other recordings.
Johan van Veen
August 2015 Musicweb-international.com
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