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Contrasting Styles

CDs of medieval music -
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'... a delightful recording ...'

Alfonso X el Sabio - Cantigas de Santa Maria. © 2004 Warner Classics, Warner Music UK Ltd

This reissue of the original Erato recording offers yet another interpretation of some of Alfonso's famous Cantigas. The thirteenth century court of this 'wise' monarch was certainly a heterodox place, a musical and cultural melting-pot of Christian and Muslim influences, and the music is therefore open to a range of interpretations, all of which attempt to recreate that sound-world in a style the practitioners regard as 'authentic.'

In the informative booklet accompanying this CD, Joel Cohen nails his colours firmly to the mast of heterodoxy:

'...a broad range of options may have been available, as is the case today in vital and diverse "crossroads" centres like New York or Marseilles. We have therefore recruited accomplished vocal soloists from a variety of backgrounds. All of our singers have Mediterranean roots -- Occitanian, Spanish, Kabalye, Arab and Judeo-Berber.'

Set against this notion of diversity is the instrumental work that underpins these recordings; very much Arabic and North African. It's heady stuff, and I suspect that listeners' responses will be based very much on personal taste. Listen to any track and you'll get an immediate flavour of what's on offer. That said, there are subtleties which only repeated listening can uncover. Personally, it's the almost minimal performance of a cantiga like No 130 -- Quen entender quiser [listen -- 2564 61942-2, track 9, 3:39-4:57], which won me over to Cohen's concept and made me listen to the other tracks with a more open ear than I began with.

I think my initial reservations came from knowing other recordings and judging this CD in the light of that knowledge: Philip Pickett and the New London Consort; the Dufay Collective and their Miracle CD; Eduardo Paniagua's realisations for The Ancient Music Group; the Viennese Ensemble Unicorn. The fact is, there can be no single 'authentic' performance of this material, and this imaginative offering has worked its way into my affections in a way which quite surprises me. The generous accompanying booklet, particularly for a reissue, also contains texts and translations.

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Copyright © 22 June 2006 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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