CD Review: Pillar Of Wisdom,Cantigas De Santa Maria IV/The Renaissance Players

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Cantigas de Santa Maria Volume IV Pillar of Wisdom

The Renaissance Players, Tall Poppies, TP231

The Renaissance Players have released the penultimate volume in their 5 CD collection collectively called the Cantigas de Santa Maria. This CD, Pillar of Wisdom contains 10 songs, performed by the Renaissance Players, directed by Winsome Evans.

A Spanish and Portuguese medieval monophonic song, the cantigas are a collection of 420 songs about the Virgin Mary written between about 1270 and 1290 under the direction of King Alfonso X El sabio (b Toledo, 23 Nov 1221; d Seville, 4 April 1284), Spanish monarch, patron, poet and composer and King of Castile and León from 1252. Some of the cantigas are hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary, but most tell of miracles wrought by her. Popular till the middle of the 15th century, the songs composed under Alfonso’s direction are the only cantigas which survive today.

In inimitable style, Winsome Evans has gathered together a band of musicians and instruments which express the style and sentiments of the times. Through her lifelong research she has aimed to understand and replicate the aesthetics of the music through the nuances of tonality, rudimentary harmonies, period ornamentation, rhythmic devices, vocal production and word stress.

Evans herself plays multiple instruments including the alto shawm and bombarde,  (early versions of the oboe), harp and related plucked  stringed instruments the sinfonye and psaltery; then there’s the vielle – a bowed instrument played by Nick Wales, the gittern played by Llew Kiek, Andrew Lambkin on a selection of percussion instruments like the pandero (large drums) and finger cymbals, and Barbara Stackpool playing the castanets. The three sopranos of the troupe, Mina Kanaridis, Melissa Irwin and Belinda Montgomery sing exquisitely in rustic style.

The cantigas are sung in the Portuguese-Galician language, because Galicia was part of Alfonso’s kingdom and the language was considered by Spanish poets of the time to be well suited to lyric poetry. The full text with English translations is supplied in the booklet which accompanies the CD. The booklet also contains comprehensive historical notes, comments and illustrations.

Recorded in St Peter’s in Sydney during 2013 on the Tall Poppies label (TP 231), it recreates the acoustic of a ‘large stone church’, where these cantigas were most likely originally performed.

Pillar of Wisdom stands on its own merit as a peregrination into devotional songs of Medieval Iberia. However, it is also an important historical document as an expertly researched and beautifully performed repository of the music of the times and the instruments played. As well, textual references indicate some of the political and religious tensions which prevailed between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region. Not least, it is the fourth in a collection of five CDs and well worth adding to the collection.


Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©




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