By John J. Puccio
During the Middle Ages, Al-Andalus became, as the CD booklet notes explain, “a centre of culture and of influence on the rest of mediaeval Europe. At that period Europe had not yet attained a level of civilization comparable with the splendour and extreme sophistication enjoyed by the inhabitants of Southern Spain. Music flourished with particular vigour in Al Andalus, protected by the patronage of the emirs, princes and caliphs, studied by the most illustrious theoreticians and played by the most remarkable performers. Arabic-Andalusian or Hispanic-Moslem music as been transmitted solely by oral tradition.” It is those oral traditions that the period-instrument group Atrium Musicae de Madrid and their leader Gregorio Paniagua follow in presenting the music of the album.
Members of Atrium Musicae de Madrid include Gregorio Paniagua, Eduardo Paniagua, Cristina Ubeda, Pablo Cano, Beatriz Amo (who also wrote the booklet notes), Luis Paniagua, and Carlos Paniagua. Yes, it was mostly a family affair, at least at the time of this recording in the mid 1970’s. They play on instruments hard to pronounce and even harder to spell. Suffice it to say that they all get into the spirit of the thing and produce some interesting and, for most of us today, unique sounds.
Gregorio Paniagua founded Atrium Musicae de Madrid in 1964, and they performed together for almost twenty years, finally disbanding in the early 1980’s. Several of their albums became quite well known, including two that I’ve had in my collection for over forty years: Musique de la Grece Antigue (Harmonia Mundi HM 90.1015) and La Spagna (BIS CD-163). Together with Al Andalus, the albums provide a valuable insight into the music of a long-ago time.
The music is about what one would expect of tunes from medieval Arabic days. It influenced composers like Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, who tried to emulate at least the feeling of such music in more modern times. The booklet notes tell us that the musical form most commonly followed by Arabic-Andalusian composers was the Nouba, a series or suite of songs grouped together in different movements. There are some variables, but things are pretty well established, and the Atrium Musicae folks say the pieces constituting the album are “like a mosaic of the most beautiful fragments of some of the Noubas which have survived.” Whatever, it’s all quite lovely and pleasantly listenable.
As for the playing, because I am unfamiliar with the music, with the instruments involved, and with the performers (except on the aforementioned two other albums), I cannot say definitively that they are the best at what they do. But what I can say is that they appear to know what they’re doing, and they make beautiful music together, mostly tranquil, meditative, and contemplative. One can hardly ask for more.
Engineer and sound editor Alberto Paulin recorded the music at Mediapole Saint-Cesaire, Impasse de Mourgues, Arles, France in October 1976. The recording has been in the catalogue continuously since then, the current issue released in 2021.
Allow to voice an opinion: The commercial home-stereo age began in about 1954 and matured over the next fifteen or twenty years, reaching a peak of sophistication in the 1970’s. Then came the digital age in the 80’s, and recording engineers had to recalibrate and develop new techniques to best exploit the emerging medium. For me, that meant that the 1970’s were a kind of golden age of analogue stereo recording, and this recording comes right in the middle of that era.
There’s a genuine sense of air and transparency around each of the instruments and an actual sense of depth to the sonic image. A moderate hall reverberation lends a note of realism to the affair, along with a deep bass response; clean, extended highs; and general feeling of naturalness. To top it off, there’s a wide dynamic range and fairly strong impact. The whole recording is quite lifelike and likable.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: