Collection: Cantigas de Santa Maria

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COMPOSERS: Songs collected by Alfonso the Wise
LABELS: Alpha
WORKS: Songs collected by Alfonso the Wise
PERFORMER: Johannette Zomer (soprano); Antequera
CATALOGUE NO: 501

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Alfonso the Wise was King of Spain in the 13th century. Among his many achievements, he compiled a collection of 400 songs to the Virgin Mary. These Cantigas de Santa Maria survive in manuscripts illustrated with a wonderful array of musical instruments, the most common of which (vielle, lute, recorder, percussion) are used on this lively, ingenious recording.

The word ‘ingenious’ is necessary here because we know very little about how these single-line melodies without any clear rhythmic indications were performed. In ‘Como ponden’, for example, we are treated to a fluid, dancing interpretation by Sarah Walden on the vielle, while in ‘Miragres fremosos’ the sad tale of a man with a bad foot is unfolded with processional regularity by the ice-clear soprano voice of Johannette Zomer.

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Some songs, such as ‘Muito per é gran dereito’, have many verses which, to save time, are spoken over an improvised background. The vocal and instrumental improvisations are usually interesting, although once a style is fixed upon they tend not to vary much between verses. Even so, some tracks, such as ‘Santa Maria loei’, easily persuade us to look beyond the curtain of technical nicety and glimpse an entrancing world of devotional fervour. Anthony Pryer