Jordi Savall rebec, tenor vielle, rebab Pedro Estevan percussion
Alia Vox AVSA9907
I have to confess that I approached this recording with some doubts; the Cantigas de Santa Maria are all songs, over 400 of them, and here is a purely instrumental version with no singing! Of course, Savall and a number of others have recorded many of the Cantigas in both sung and instrumental versions. Here he performs instrumental versions of 12 alongside 11 traditional Galician dances from what he describes as ‘oral sources’. Thanks to the wonderful internet – which has the complete manuscript available – you can check out what he does with the material from which he is working.
Peter Dronke (The Medieval Lyric) says that accompanying dancing “was one of the prime functions of lyric throughout the Middle Ages”. Fra Angelico’s wonderful ‘Last Judgement’ depicts sixteen angels doing a round dance without any instruments apparent – clearly all singing as they danced. However, Johannes de Grocheio’s remark that “The good artist generally introduces every cantus and cantilena and every musical form on the vielle”, together with the large number of instruments depicted in the manuscript (many of which are reproduced in the lavishly illustrated booklet) well justifies a purely instrumental rendition. Anyway with so few surviving instrumental dances from the period, as much of dance music was improvised, or played by non-readers, one must needs be creative.
I shouldn’t have worried. By taking the notated music of the Cantigas, and putting it in the context of traditional, orally transmitted Galician dance music, he comes up with something that not only seems very true to the spirit of the older music, but is great listening.
He plays three different instruments: a Moorish rebec, waisted with four strings and frets; a 5-string rebec dating from the 15th century – also with frets, which looks to me more like a vielle, as it is also waisted; a 5-string tenor fiddle/vielle. The percussion ranges in pitch and timbre from a gorgeously boomy tambour, a bright sounding darbuka and tuned bells. The sounds of the three string instruments are beautifully varied. The ‘rebel morisco’ sounds as though it has a skin sound-board, and the illustration bears this out – giving an intriguing ‘hollowness’ to the sound.
As you would expect, the playing is fantastic, spontaneous, brilliant. I loved the Ductia & Rota with its uneven phrases – four measures and then three measures, a wonderful catchy rhythm, an intuitive reaction to the material.
Savall encourages us to consider the most ancient of our musical traditions in the context of living folk music. The 13th-century notation of the Cantigas is comparatively clear, but an approach like this can bring them so alive, an inspiring recording of what has been called “one of the greatest monuments of medieval music”.