Forgotten Provence 1150-1550 / The Martin Best Consort

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The whole programme, the lively and the reflective, is very well performed.

The very welcome resurgence of the Nimbus and Lyrita labels has restored many treasures to the catalogue. This is emphatically one of them – an hour of music from medieval and early-Renaissance Provence on a recording to sit back and enjoy. Technically, this and the other recordings made by the Martin Best Consort and Ensemble are not reissues, since they are again available with their original catalogue numbers and still at full price. Almost five years after Nimbus got back on its feet, it is incredible that their recordings are not featured in the 2008 editions of either the Penguin Guide or the Gramophone Guide. I hope that the current review will partly redress that unfortunate situation.

The recording covers a number of themes, as stated in the sub-titles. The overall tone of the programme is lively, though with some reflective interludes. The texts are in Occitan, the medieval language of Provence, and Latin.

The first section deals with love, not always of the courtly type. In Ne l’oseray-je the woman laments that she is to be married off to an uncouth peasant; the man complains that everything in the home seems to be for his wife’s benefit. In Dessus la rive a sailor tries to have his way with a young girl, who appears to get the better of him.

Track 3 brings us to the theme of fin amors or courtly love, but with the boot on the other foot – the woman’s rather than the man’s. Beatriz, La Comtessa de Dia, or Comtesse de Die, was one of several independent-minded medieval Provençal women who fought their corner in a male-dominated world. In A chanter m’er de so qu’ieu non volria (I must sing of that which I would rather not), the only piece by any of the trobairitz, or female troubadours, to have survived with its melody, she adopts the role usually taken by the male lover, complaining that she is compelled to sing about a love that consumes her for someone who does not value her.

This work is also included on an excellent Hyperion recording, Bella Domna: The Medieval Woman (Stevie Wishart with Sinfonye on the budget-price Helios label, CDH55207 review – a well-deserved Musicweb Bargain of the Month). Sinfonye perform the work unaccompanied and at a slightly more leisurely pace. Both performances work well, capturing a tone of regret, rather than anger, at the indifference of the beloved. If I marginally prefer the Hyperion, it is a very close call – Lilly Crabtree on Nimbus sings excellently. All the versions which I know give the text as chantar, which would seem to be correct Occitan, but Crabtree clearly sings chanter, as per the booklet.

Those wishing to know more about the trobairitz should consult Klinck A L and A M Rasmussen (eds.), Medieval Woman’s Song: Cross Cultural Approaches (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). References to A chanter m’er are on p.8. Vecy le mai is a carole in rondeau form, one of those countless medieval celebrations of the month of May, "the merry month which stirs our hearts." Ma charmante cadet belongs to the chanson d’aventure type, though it omits the usual prefatory matter in which the man’s riding out is described; it represents a dialogue between a knight and a peasant girl who, as so often in such chansons, is his intellectual superior.

The sequence of free organum which follows allows a temporary respite from secular concerns. The term organum refers not to an organ accompaniment but to an early kind of polyphony in which the voices move at an interval against each other, usually at a fifth; in this case the technique is applied to a sung Alleluia into which the psalm text Justus ut palma has been inserted – "the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree." Those seeking to understand terms such as organum and polyphony will find lucid explanations in the Oxford Companion to Music. In any case, don’t be put off by these technical terms; just enjoy the music. A l’entrada del tens cler takes us back to familiar troubadour territory, the return of Spring. Li gelos chastises jealous men, while the Air de Cheval gives us a brief instrumental interlude.

Lancan li jorn is one of the most celebrated of troubadour cansos; in Jaufré’s text the lover longs with what the notes aptly describe as Michelangelo’s ‘divine discontent’, for his beloved in a far-off country. This piece is no less effective for its being viewed from the conventional male perspective. The note-writer thinks that Beatriz’s female-orientated version in A chanter m’er is somehow more ‘real’, but long experience has taught me never to be wholly convinced by circumstantial detail in literature – as when Rousseau retells Montaigne’s account of being knocked out by a rampaging animal, as if it were his own experience. Jaufre is just as convincing when his canso is sung as affectively as it is here.

In Ara Lauzata a lascivious monk wishes that the pretty girl he sees could be a beautiful nun encloistered in his house; he is obviously second cousin to some of the worldly clerics in the Carmina Burana, best known in Carl Orff’s arrangement, though the original medieval music has survived. The Sequence to St Peter and St Paul recalls us to the joyful praise which the monk should have been offering to the saints instead of the scurrilous thoughts to which he has given voice.

The Montpellier Motets are not all religious pieces – the term did not have that limited meaning originally. Pucelete/Je languis, Aucun and Lonc tans are all secular motets but Alle Psallite, which closes the sequence, is another eked-out Alleluia in praise of God. If you would like to investigate further the manuscript from which these pieces came, you could do much worse than to try the Anonymous 4 in Love’s Illusion: Music from the Montpellier Codex – a different style from that of Martin Best but equally enjoyable (Harmonia Mundi HMX290 7109, budget price).

Nightingales figured largely in medieval poetry and music. The first of the pieces entitled Rossignolet du bois asks if the nightingale has heard the voice of a village boy who wishes to be married but doesn’t understand how to behave in love. In the second the nightingale announces the arrival of Spring-time and love. In le Sodard, the soldier hears the nightingale sing that his love is dead. The lyrics are worthy of Housman’s Shropshire Lad and the music a rousing martial theme, played here with gusto, which contrasts with the soldier’s loss.

The Epiphany sequence Epiphaniam Domino is one of many such pieces contained in medieval missals, lengthy pieces which replaced the Gradual between Epistle and Gospel, very few of which survived the reforming zeal of the Council of Trent.

The final piece, Reis glorios, is a dawn-song, alba in Occitan, aubade in standard French. The words are spoken as if by the watchman who has been keeping guard over his master as he made love, but they are religious words, in praise of the Glorious King and His Holy Mother. The fine performance of this wonderful alba by Guiraut de Bornelh, named by Dante as the Master of the troubadours, makes an excellent conclusion to a very worthwhile programme, combining the secular and the spiritual, as the medievals did effortlessly.

The singing and instrumental playing throughout are excellent, in both the lively music – the courtly and the not so courtly – and the more reflective pieces. I leave aside the thorny issue of the extent to which such music should be accompanied. Regular readers will know that I have consistently given the highest praise to Hyperion’s budget-price Helios reissues of the recordings of Gothic Voices, who very rarely include an instrumental accompaniment. I trust that I shall not seem illogical in praising the Martin Best Consort, who do regularly employ such an accompaniment, in equal measure. There is certainly room for both approaches when such fine performers are involved; in any case, the accompaniments here are not overdone. Apart from the fact that the Gothic Voices reissues are at budget price, comparisons are odious – and there is no overlap, as far as I am aware, between this Nimbus recording and anything that Gothic Voices recorded: they concentrated on a mainly Northern French repertoire.

The recording is good – a little close, but that is not inappropriate in such music. The notes are informative, offering a general overview and individual notes on the separate tracks. Nimbus offer translations of all the works, but not the original texts. If only one could be included, I suppose that is the right way round, but I still think it a pity – medieval Provençal is not exactly a common enough skill for the listener to pick it up from hearing the CD. Hyperion are more generous in this matter: they always offer texts, albeit in minuscule form, including that of A chantar m’er in the booklet accompanying Sinfonye’s recording of Bella Domna. For convenience of those who buy the recording – many of you, I hope – I have included such original texts as I have access to, in an Appendix to this review.

Until recently, this CD was available with other Martin Best medieval recordings in a bargain collection. If you hurry, you may find that some dealers are still offering that set – a wonderful bargain. It was the original intention that I should review the collection but, although it is deleted in that form, Nimbus have kindly sent me the individual CDs to review. Watch out for reviews of the remaining volumes in due course.

-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NI5445

  • UPC: 710357544521

  • Label: Nimbus

  • Composer: Anonymous, Beatriz, Comtessa de Dia, Giraut de Bornelh, Jaufre Rudel, Petrus de Cruce, Pierre Cerveau, Traditional

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Martin Best Medieval Ensemble

  • Performer: Carys-Anne Lane, David Corkhill, David Tosh, Giles Chabonard, Kim Porter, Libby Crabtree, Lucie Skeaping, Martin Best, Matthew Vine, Natanja Hadda, Paul Tindell, Rebecca Outram, Robin Jeffrey, Rosemary Thorndycroft, Simon Davies, Susannah Spicer