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The Renaissance Players – with their revolving line-up of a dozen or so musicians, poetry readers, dancers and, often, miming clowns, and vast repertoire of many thousands of early lyrics – have been colourful stalwarts of Australia’s early music scene since their formation in 1967. Their director Winsome Joan Evans, sometimes known as Snave Pluckpayres, is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where her academic output has included the recomposition of J. S. Bach’s solo violin works for clavicembalo, adding accompaniments as she believes Bach must have had in mind.

The Players return to the scene after a break in their recorded output with three discs in 2014: Pilgrimage to Montserrat, and two additions to their Cantigas de Santa Maria series entitled Gabriel’s Message and Pillar of Wisdom. The playing and singing throughout is very fine indeed, showcasing some excellent young Australian singers alongside often more established instrumentalists.

Evans passionately believes in Alfonso’s portrayal of himself – given out through the illuminations in the ‘Escorial’ codex of the Cantigas –as a patron of Christian, Jewish and Islamic musicians in equal measure and as an advocate for their uniting and blending. To that end, a dazzling kaleidoscope of instrumental timbres is featured across the two Cantigas discs, from zūrnā, baglama and panderos to gemshorn, diwan saz and vielle to harp, castanets and bombard and beyond. There is some very accomplished and effective reciting, some feather-light and pure – yet energized – soprano work (‘Entre Av’ e Eva’, Pillar of Wisdom), and the texts are brought to life unquestionably vividly. The featured improvisation ranges from the slightly aimless to the totally inspired. I like the representation of Gabriel by male and female voices doubling at the octave, though Evans explains that the idea is borrowed from Gerard Corbiau’s 1994 film Farinelli. Pilgrimage to Montserrat features 19 musicians altogether, a convincing collection of pilgrims; some terrific corporate energy (‘Stella splendens’) and some exuberant circle-dance extensions. Some of the rhythmic transcription is unorthodox and not always convincing (‘Cuncti simus concanentes’), but structural decisions are explained in detail in Evans’s extremely thorough liner notes.

The number of instruments and sounds Evans has gathered across these discs – in reflection of the multi-faith melting-pot that existed across the Catalonian and Iberian worlds – is extraordinary and very exciting. She goes further than the parameters of instrumentation in creating her own melting-pot of influences, with nods to entirely different musical styles and other creative media. Sometimes this misfires; some of the backing vocals on ‘Bẽeyto foi o dia’ (Gabriel’s message) are a little more ‘Mariah Carey’ than ‘Marian cantigas’, and there are frequent incongruous New Age-y moments throughout. Pilgrimage to Montserrat’s dedication to the late filmmaker Robin Anderson results in introductory and concluding (‘Ghost’) pastiche tracks, in which a melody from the Ludus Danielis is given a parodied Latin text wherein a pop festival in Runnymede, Australia is dedicated to Anderson’s memory, the liner notes explaining that ‘[the] concept of metamorphosis [herein] is akin to the ‘boy-who-became-a-Muni-bird’ tradition of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea – something of a jolt, presumably, to anyone expecting the ‘O Virgo splendens hic in monte celso’ (which does appear, though out of sequential order part-way through the second disc of this double-CD).

Not one for purists, then – though solid research forms the basis for the flights of fantasy – yet taken in small doses (the kaleidoscopic, perhaps slightly gimmicky range of sounds and textures can actually begin to become rather same-y in its own way if one attempts to digest it all in one go). Original, exciting and a refreshing change from some of the more po-faced renditions around, these are certainly convincing as a latter-day reflection of the cultural cross-fertilisation at play within the music.

Catherine Groom Read the full review on Agora Classica

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