musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Cantigas de Santa Maria
Ensemble Gilles Binchois/Dominique Vellard
concert: March 10, 2015, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

anon: A madre de deus; A que faz os peccadores; A que por muy gran fremosura; A Reínna en que é; En o nome de Maria; Muito faz; Nas Mentes; O que diz; Pero cantigas; Quen quer que na virgen fia; Rosa das rosas; Santa Maria Sennor; Sola fusti; Tant e Santa Maria; Virga de Iesse; Guiraut RIQUIER (c1230-c1300): Jhesus Cristz filh de Dieu viu; trad: Cant de la Sibilla; El ofertorio; Las fuentes no manan agua; Llena de pena Maria; Que hermosa noche

Anne-Marie Lablaude, Ana-Isabel Amaz, voice; Dominique Vellard, voice, ud; Baptiste Romain, fiddle, bagpipe; Keyvan Chemirani, percussion

The Cantigas de Santa Maria belong among the most fascinating repertoire of the Middle Ages. However, we don't know that much about when exactly they were written, by whom and why. The collection is inextricably connected to Alfonso X, nicknamed 'the Wise', who was King of Castile, León and Galicia from 1252 to 1284. It was once assumed that he had written and composed the cantigas himself, but that is certainly not the case, although he may indeed be the author of a number of these songs. One of the intriguing aspects of these pieces is that they were written in a time when several cultures and religions coexisted peacefully in Spain: the Christian which was the dominant force and which finds its expression in the cantigas, the Jewish and the Muslim. It is probably a kind of nostalgia to that time of coexistence that the music from this period - the cantigas, but also other repertoire - is regularly performed and recorded. The time of Alfonso seems in strong contrast to our own time.

As in most music from the Middle Ages it is nearly impossible to tell how it should be performed. Two issues have special relevance here. The cantigas are monodic, but does this mean that they should be performed with just one voice? In the concert of the Ensemble Gilles Binchois in Zeist, a small town east of Utrecht, almost alle the cantigas were performed polyphonically. As the ensemble's director, Dominique Vellard, stated in a short radio interview during the interval, the artists are inspired by other music from the same time in their creation of additional voices to what has been written down. Sometimes these voices are sung, but in most cases they were played on several instruments, usually the fiddle, a plucked instrument and percussion, in various combinations. Only En o nome de Maria was performed by a single voice, to the accompaniment of a percussion instrument (a duff). Two other pieces were performed with a single voice, but these were Spanish traditionals, Llena de pena, Maria and Las fuentes no manan agua. In the latter the solo voice was halfway joined by a second voice, singing the same part in unisono. The addition of such pieces threw light on the historical context of the cantigas.

The second issue is the use of instruments: how many and which? The coexistence of various cultures with their own traditions and instruments inspires some ensembles to perform the cantigas with a mixture of instruments as they are used in medieval music from western Europe and instruments as they were - and often still are - played in Mediterranean cultures. The Ensemble Gilles Binchois seems to adopt a middle course here: it uses relatively few instruments, and the influences of Mediterranean cultures is confined to the participation of a single plucked instrument - the 'ud - and some percussion instruments, such as the above-mentioned duff. On the other hand we heard a fiddle and a bagpipe, basically western instruments (although they have their equivalents in other parts of the world). Whether that is the best way to approach this repertoire is hard to say, but on me it made a more convincing impression than attempts to make the cantigas sound like some forerunners of songs sung today in near eastern cultures.

Obviously this repertoire is almost impossible to perform without some kind of improvisation. That not only manifests itself in the addition of parts to the monodic songs but also in the playing of the instruments. Baptiste Romain is a specialist in medieval and renaissance string instruments, and he delivered excellent performances on the fiddle. On the bagpipe he is no slouch either. I am often critical about the frequent inclusion of percussion in performances and recordings as I feel that it is often superfluous and not more than a way to brighten up the music. However, in this repertoire its participation seems justified: some songs have a dance rhythm and percussion seems to have played an important role in Spanish culture of the time (and well into the baroque period). However, I am not sure whether it should play such a long 'solo' in Nas mentes.

It was one of the cantigas which was performed instrumentally. On the one hand that seems a good way to bring some variety into the programme, just like the inclusion of pieces from other sources. On the other hand, these songs are written with a specific purpose: to tell the audience about the miracles performed by the Virgin Mary. The message goes lost when the words are omitted. I was also surprised that some cantigas were not performed complete. Sometimes the omission of a stanza resulted in the next stanzas losing their sense. In O qui diz I missed the last stanza which is especially odd as it includes the clue of the piece.

However, it was nice to listen to this fascinating music which was performed very well. With Anne-Marie Lablaude and Ana-Isabel Amaz the ensemble has two fine singers at its disposal. Dominique Vellard also sung some pieces; whether one likes his voice and his way of singing is probably a matter of taste. I have certainly heard more attractive voices, but he sang Rosa das rosas - one of the best-known songs of this collection - beautifully.

The combination of repertoire and performance resulted in a most enjoyable evening.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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