Collection: A Medieval Banquet

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: Music from the Age of Chivalry
PERFORMER: Martin Best Medieval Consort
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1753 ADD/DDD Reissue (1982-98)

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These troubadour songs date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and were composed in the courts of Southern France and Northern Spain. Martin Best is one of the most experienced performers in this repertory, and this retrospective collection provides a particularly enjoyable introduction to this unique and colourful culture.

The earliest disc here dates from 1981 when, in a bold move, Best decided to record the works of just one composer – Guiraut Riquier (d. 1292), ‘the last of the troubadours’.

Immediately we hear the distinctive sound-world which Best has nurtured ever since. First there is his clear, flexible voice glancing effortlessly across the bumps and gullies of these old melodies (the Lament for the Lord of Narbonne is a moving example.) Next there is a particular range of imaginative (and imagined – since we know little about it) accompaniment-types, based on plucked and bowed strings, a single flute-pipe and drums.

Finally, there is the constant change and variety, no piece ever being allowed to go on too long and interrupt the flow of the concert-on-disc. This is all great fun for the listener but, from something so immediately pleasing to the modern ear, it would be foolish not to expect compromises with the past.

First, there is the eye-popping trivialisation of some works – 24 seconds of Arnaut Daniel’s Lo ferm voler, for example, tooted on a pipe on the "Dante" disc. (For a more meaningful version of this great song see Sequentia’s "Dante and the Troubadours" on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi). Second, the texts are often truncated and the booklet provides no translations.

A Virgen on the "Cantigas" disc, for example, is incomplete but with some of the remaining verses repeated. (For the full version see Musica Antigua’s "Healing Cures" recording on Sony.) Finally, the modern, bel canto singing rather neutralises the harsher side of these pieces – such as the edginess and sexual passion in Tant ai mo cor from the "Amor de Lonh" disc.

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For those who prefer some darker shading on this music, though still with a directly entertaining approach, I recommend the Clemencic Consort reissue, "Troubadours" from Harmonia Mundi France (reviewed November, 1998). But Martin Best and Nimbus are to be congratulated on the remarkable consistency of atmosphere and excitement maintained over the 17 years of their recording partnership.