Recording of July 1996: Danzas Medievales Españolas

EDUARDO PANIAGUA GROUP: Danzas Medievales Españolas
Eudardo Paniagua, flautas de bisel, nay, fujara, psalterio, tromba marina, darbuga, tar, címbalos, caraqueb, cascabeles; Cesar Carazo, canto, viola de brazo; Wafir Sheik, laúd árabe, darbuga, pandero, sonajero; Jaime Muñoz, axabeba, kaval, chalumeau, dulcimer, sonajas; Enrique Almendros, flautas de tres agujeros, gaitas, gaita charra y tamboril, tar, címbaols, campanas; Luis Delgado, zanfona, laúd, dutar, vihuela de péñola, santur, fujara, cántara, darbuga, zarb, bendir, pandera, tambor, tar
M•A M034A (CD only). Todd Garfinkle, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 72:05

Available from M•A Recordings, Tel: (818) 907-9996, Fax: (818) 783-4938.

It seems to me that the best performances of medieval music have in them a touch of sadness even when, as here, the tunes are played with affection, enthusiasm, and joy. Partly, of course, this is a modern-day response on the performers' parts: to be truly involved in the music, they must lament, if only a little, the loss of the age that produced it—in this case, Spain before the Reconquista.

Nor is this view entirely new. Legend says that there are still families in Morocco who hold the keys to their houses in Spain, and the literature of the Middle Ages is full of longing—amor de lonh—for the Golden Age. For many throughout subsequent history, Moorish Spain embodied this ideal, a vision of Hebrew philosophers and Arab poets in flowing caftans, the halls of the Alhambra resounding with their voices while dancers spun to such passionate music as Eduardo Paniagua and his ensemble play for us. Cruelly, this is not the true picture, but then all pictures lie.

But what a marvelous evocation of this spirit Paniagua has created in this, his second disc for M•A Recordings. (His first, Calamus: The Splendour of al-Andalus, was Stereophile's May 1995 "Recording of the Month.") With gorgeously varied instrumental textures, complex rhythms, and unerring choice of material, they open up our journey through the Spain of the Five Kingdoms. In their hands, the music truly lives again. These are not tourist resorts we are going to, but real places where people danced, laughed, gambled, made love, and created art for the same reason we do today—because they could not do otherwise and live. The music they made, as realized on this disc, is neither quaint nor funny, although it has that strangeness that delights us in all art, whether old or new.

Paniagua and his collaborators use many instruments, all researched from medieval illustrations or descriptions: ouds, psalteries, flutes, chalumeau, bagpipes, and the widest range of percussion you can imagine, from cymbals to tambours to drums. All of this is beautifully recorded: Finger cymbals shimmer in the air, plucked strings blossom in beautiful warmth and roundness, and drums have skins and volumes of air inside them and lots of bass impact and punch. The best thing, though, is the wonderful sense of space (from digital!), the portrayal of instruments played in a vast room with a hugely long decay that never blurs the performance.

Lately, I've gotten to hear a lot of recordings that exemplify the whole high-end thing; this is one of the best of them.—Les Berkley