Music and Vision homepage

Record Box

Distant love

Songs of Jaufre Rudel
and Martin Codax,
reviewed by REX HARLEY

harmonia mundi    HMU 907203

Distant Love - Songs of Martin Codax and Jauffre Rudel. © 2000 harmonia mundi

It's a little over twenty years since Paul Hillier recorded a series of troubadour songs and medieval lyrics, on the Hyperion label. His voice is essentially the same now as it was then : strong yet capable of lyrical expression [listen -- track 3, 0:59-2:00]. Performance styles have undergone some dramatic changes in that time; the earlier the music, the more swiftly fashion seems to change. But the problem with this disc is not that it sounds dated, so much that somehow the material does not come alive through Hillier's voice. Even compared with the much more recent Chansons de Trouvères disc -- also on harmonia mundi; also with Andrew Lawrence-King -- something seems to have gone awry.

Perhaps it is simply that after a while this repertoire of early love songs starts to sound too much the same. But, in that case, why do the Cantigas de Amigo of Martin Codax sound so thrilling when performed by Mara Kiek and Stevie Wishart's Sinfonye? One reason, I suspect, lies in the vocal training and delivery. Mara Kiek has spent much time studying traditional vocal techniques; her performance is thus infused with a kind of rough-edged earthiness. This feels entirely appropriate to the delivery of thirteenth century Iberian love songs. By contrast, the very English Hillier [listen -- track 7, 0:01-0:53] is earnest and a touch theatrical in his attempt to emphasise the poetry. In the Codax songs, this is not helped by the fact that all seven are sung entirely unaccompanied. The harp is used merely to frame them in an instrumental 'Prelude' and 'Postlude'.

Some of the Jaufre Rudel pieces are unaccompanied too, but even those in which the psaltery or harp make an appearance use these instruments most sparingly. One song, Belhs m'es l'estius e.l temps floritz [listen -- track 13, 4:04-5:02], is in fact not sung but declaimed. And here, I think, the nature of the problem becomes clear. Hillier favours this declamatory style, even when singing. In small doses, this is fine, but with material such as this it quickly begins to sound heavy and portentous. A while longer and one notices there is only one tempo : slow. Eventually it sounds downright lugubrious, a dead hand which ultimately presses the life out of these fragile creations. It's all very well harmonia mundi giving the listener a nicely produced book, complete with lyrics and translations, but if the performance fails to stimulate us musically, will we care enough to read the poetry?

Manuscript from the 'Cantigas de Amigo' by Martin Codax, as illustrated in the harmonia mundi CD booklet for this disc. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Vindel MS M979
Manuscript from the 'Cantigas de Amigo' by Martin Codax, as illustrated in the harmonia mundi CD booklet for this disc. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Vindel MS M979

The back of the CD case has the words of an anonymous reviewer for BBC Music Magazine, informing us that 'Hillier is captivating and the harp lends a magical touch', a remark presumably taken out of context, and referring to the earlier Trouvères material. The fact that the Codax and Rudel were recorded separately, some four years apart suggests that the idea of combining them into a single CD was a belated one. Its release adds little, either to the recorded repertoire of early music, or the standing of Paul Hillier as a performer of such music.

Copyright © 8 March 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


Distant Love - Songs of Jaufre Rudel and Martin Codax

HMU 907203 Stereo 68'09" 2000 harmonia mundi usa

Paul Hillier, voice; Andrew Lawrence-King, psaltery and harp

Cantigas de Amigo by Martin Codax (fl c 1230); Six songs by Jaufre Rudel (fl mid 12th century)






 << Music & Vision home      Recent CD reviews       Delius >>

Download a free realplayer 

For help listening to the sound extracts here,
please refer to our questions & answers page.

Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Saturday series of shorter CD reviews