Capella de Ministrers’ Travels Down the Silk Road

Looking at the discography listed on the website of Valencian early music ensemble Capella de Ministrers is an impressive thing indeed. I count no less than 56 titles there, and the group has managed that number of releases in a mere matter of 41 years.

The one that hooked me in its re-release 13 years ago, Trobadors, was number 19. Despite all of this industry, Carles Magraner and company have had some measure of difficulty establishing their brand with fans of early music, partly owing to stiff competition from the various Catalonian groups led by Jordi Savall.

In recent times, that appears to be changing. Their 2015 album Planctus was widely praised by reviewers, as was 2016’s Hic et Nunc; the concert tour that is reflected by Hic et Nunc was well received and there are numerous laudatory reviews of concerts stemming from the project. In April, Capella de Ministrers 2017 album Quattrocento won the Early Music category at the ICMA (International Classical Music Awards) held in Kantowice.

However, from their latest Licanus release to hit these shores, La Ruta de la Seda (The Silk Road: The Orient and the Mediterranean), I have feeling that Magraner and Capella de Ministrers have achieved a true milestone; one of those career-defining projects that take a step ahead of the pack and dazzles with its own special cachet — not only now, but for years to come.

This isn’t just an ordinary 2-CD set in a clamshell case; it comes in a bound book of 124 pages that includes a ribbon to help one keep their place in it, much as one finds in a bible. You’re going to want to use that, as Germán Navarro Espinach’s essay — which supports the collection – is given in four languages, along with text translations and track listings in each language.

La Ruta de la Seda follows the Silk Road from China to Spain with stops along the way, and it’s divided into seven sections dealing with such subjects as Marco Polo, the state of Al-Andalus, the Byzantine Empire, medieval Italy and so forth.

The Silk Road was a network of historic trade routes that connected Asia to Europe; its first travelers are noted in the fourth century CE. The pursuit of trade among China, the Middle East, and Europe continued – not always peacefully – until China closed its doors to the outside world in the fifteenth century.

The range of instruments employed in this collection is staggering, and Capella de Ministrers wisely draw in some expert players of Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern instruments to cover those sounds rather than tackling those instrumental challenges themselves.

In La Ruta de la Seda there are no medieval “hits” – no “Kalenda Maya,” no “Alle psallite cum luya.” Even seasoned early music listeners aren’t likely to hear anything they already know apart from a couple of the Cantigas employed, as there seems to have been an intention employed here to avoid the familiar.

I’ll confess that before La Ruta de la Seda arrived, I was suffering from a little of Silk Road burnout in regard to its application in music. The unrelated Silk Road Ensemble, begun by Yo Yo Ma, is already 22 years old, and Mr. Ma himself stepped down from its leadership last year. It’s a great idea, but how long can one stay interested in it?

Moreover, what is to be gained in the arts from continuing to promote the concept of multiculturalism in a world that is becoming increasingly more sectarian and xenophobic? Do we do that because as artists we are compelled to do what we think is right for the world, even though diplomats, politicians, clerics, and sociologists are more qualified to deal directly with those challenges?

I’ll not answer that, but La Ruta de la Seda is a glorious thing to listen to, with fine singing, mastery of a dazzling array of instruments and a sense of fleshing out the fleeting, surviving scraps of mostly monophonic musical sources of this distant era that works incredibly well.

I’m a guy that prides himself on knowing a thing or two about early music, but the amount of research that went into La Ruta de la Seda, its book, and into this project as a whole, makes me feel stupid.

David “Uncle Dave” Lewis is the co-host of WTJU’s “The Early Music Show” which airs on Mondays between 7-9 PM. He will present an extended selection of music from “La Ruta de la Seda” as part of a memorial tribute to the late chef Anthony Bourdain, who was known for being a world traveler and a fancier of local cuisine outside of the mainstream. This program will air on Monday, June 11, 2018.

La Ruta de la Seda
Capella de Ministrers, Carles Magraner
Licanus Records

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