The Cantigas de Santa María are a group of more than 400 monophonic songs composed in Spain in the 1270s and 1280s at the court of King Alfonso X "El sabio" (The Wise) and often attributed to him. Wise he was indeed. A candidate for cloning, in fact -- Spanish culture under his reign successfully integrated Islamic, Jewish, and Christian elements. The Cantigas have come down to us as melodies, and artwork of the day gives us an idea of the mix of instruments that might have been used.
This set of 21 Cantigas on two discs makes a convincing, integrated presentation, introducing the issues surrounding these works while providing the more casual listener with an attractive and varied group of medieval songs. The Cantigas chosen deal with episodes in the life of Mary, and it is easy to imagine that they might have been excerpted from the larger group even in their own time. Some tracks contain spoken narrative. The instrumentation chosen by Musica Antigua and its director Eduardo Paniagua emphasizes Arabic elements -- the darbuga (or darabouka) hand drum, Arab lutes, and the viols that represent European music's most direct link to the Arab world. The melodies are traded off between solo singers and small groups, and each song is given a setting appropriate to its text.
"We recommend that you read the texts of these Cantigas tranquilly while listening to the music," say the liner notes. Good idea, but the only translation from medieval Spanish provided is into modern Spanish. Detailed summaries of each piece are given in English and French, however, and anyone with a smattering of Spanish will get the general idea if not all of the detail that gives the Cantigas their flavor. The album is well recorded, with carefully differentiated microphone treatment of the various blaring reeds, quiet lutes, and whispering flutes in this nicely varied recording.