Alfonso X, “el Sabio” (“the Wise”), was king of Castile and Leon from 1252 to 1284, a time when those realms were an outpost of European culture on a peninsula under the domination of the Muslim Moors. He was known as a patron of the arts, and his court was a place where noted scholars, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, met with some of the foremost artists and musicians of the day. This collection, which includes the first known song cycle, ascribed to Martin Codax, gives a glimpse of a time and place which is deliciously foreign while at the same time hauntingly familiar.
We have very little music surviving from this period which was not meant to be heard in a church; this collection focuses on the secular songs of the troubadours, which is very different from the plainsong and chant that most of us associate with medieval music: lively dance tunes, plaintive airs, sweet ballads, marked by complex rhythms and intricate instrumental and vocal flourishes, and reflecting some wonderful surprises from the traditions of the troubadours (the songs are all by troubadours associated with Alfonso’s court, although we have virtually no surviving music from the court itself). Those of you who are fans of traditional music from Ireland and Scotland will feel very much at home, a circumstance that leads me to think that these traditions extended far beyond the Island of the Mighty. (“Que muyto meu pago,” for example, is a lovely ballad that could have originated on the Emerald Isle. “Quen a Virgen” uses a drone under a lilting vocal that says “Highlands.” There is even some remarkable fiddling.) “Martin jograr,” however, a cantiga de escarnho or “scornful song,” leaves no doubt that these songs originated in Spain, only reinforced by the strongly Eastern sound of the opening of “Non soffre Santa Maria.”
The Iberian feel of these songs is even more apparent in “Cantigas de amigo,” the song cycle offered on the last portion of the disc. The instrumentalists ably and subtly support Vivien Ellis’ spellbinding vocals, which range from passages of crystal clarity to those which sound very much like antecedents of the Portuguese fado. Instrumental passages make use of the instruments we might expect (psaltery, harp, flute, vielle) as well as others that note Spain’s wealth of heritage (oud, rabab, saz, frame drums, tabla, darbuka) and weave a rich tapestry of sound. This cycle is fascinating music, beautifully realized.
The disc comes with a very helpful and informative booklet with an essay on the music in English, French, Spanish and German; a detailed listing of the instruments and performers; and lyrics to the vocal works with translations in French, English, and modern Spanish, illustrated by miniature paintings and illuminations from the period.
The Dufay Collective fully lives up to their advance billing. This is a marvelous recording, displaying genuine sensitivity to the material and the highest caliber of musicianship. It is familiar, exotic, absorbing, and sometimes tremendously affecting.
The Dufay Collective is: Paul Bevan, psaltery, whistle, percussion; Vivien Ellis, voice; Giles Lewin, voice, vielle, oud, rabab, saz; William Lyons, flute, simfony, percussion; Susanna Pell, vielle, rabab, saz; Peter Skuce, harp, percussion.
(Harmonia Mundi, 2005)