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Carmina Burana
Twenty three medieval songs from the original Benedikbeuren manuscript c.1230
Boston Camerata/Joel Cohen
Recorded in 1996 - no other details given
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 62084-2 [78.45]


This disc in the Warner Apex series was first issued on Erato. At bargain-price, this series includes other discs of medieval and early music, for example the 13th Century ‘Roman de Fauvel’ and the Spanish ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’. These are all classic 1990s recordings.

There are over two hundred poems of which approximately forty-five have music attached to them. This comprises the most important and comprehensive collection of lyrics from central Europe throughout the entire middle ages. These poems are of a vastly differing content and character. The order of pieces was carefully planned according to main groups: satirical songs, observations and laments on the course of the world or the lowering morals, love songs, drinking songs, game songs and real Goliardic poetry as well as Sacred plays; the latter of which have also been recorded, for example, by the Ensemble Organum on Harmonia Mundi. The greatest portion stems from the late 11th century and early 12th century. The majority of the poetry originated in France. A few German poems are mixed in with Latin ones. Many of them are also known from other sources. We can for example recognize the work of Walther de Chatillon and Petrus de Blois. Likewise some melodies may be found in other sources and melodies for lyrics from other collections may be pressed into service for poems from the present manuscript.

In his notes Joel Cohen succinctly tells us where he has found the tunes and how he has used them. Some are worked out from the neumes in the CM manuscript (e.g. mi dilectissima’). Some are from other manuscripts (e.g. ‘Bacche, bene venies’ from a Beauvais mystery play). Others were composed in modern times. These include the attractive tune written and recorded by Tom Binkley, who recorded songs from the manuscript forty years ago, for ‘Tempus est jocundem‘, and by René Clemencic for ‘Ich war ein chant’. The disc ends with ‘Tempus adest floridum’ which, with slight modal alterations, uses a tune we now know as ‘Good King Wenceslas’.

But before we go any further you might find it helpful to have a quick résumé of earlier recordings of the astonishing Benedikbeuren manuscript.

There have been several attempts to record what is possible from the manuscript in the last forty years. Isolated pieces can be found on many a recording, but the following are the most significant:-

Studio die Fruhen Musik directed by the late Thomas Binkley on Telefunken (SFM)
René Clemencic and his ensemble on Harmonia Mundi (RC)

Philip Pickett and the New London Consort on L’Oiseau Lyre (NLC) and now

The Boston Camerata under Joel Cohen (BC)

Why should you purchase this version of Carmina Burana and what does it have to offer?

The more I think of it the more I am convinced that the Art (with a big A) of the 12th century was a mixture of the improvised and the notationally detailed. The improvised allowed a free-rein to fantasy, the detailed to the intellectual. Not for nothing has this period been called the ‘First Renaissance’. An ideal recording allows for fantasy tempered by an unerring effort to discover what the music might be trying to do and what it must really have been like.

Let us compare the way these performers approach a few of these pieces. ‘Bacche, bene venies’ is one of the most popular of tunes and often recorded. For Clemencic’s ensemble it is an opportunity to be at their ‘beery’ best. Theirs is an absolute orgy of noise and weird vocal effects which I’m sorry to say I find extremely annoying. Pickett is far more reserved, in fact too much I feel, not only in this song but in others where he can be almost strait-laced especially the often lugubrious Michael George. Tom Binkley has the contralto Andrea von Ramm singing the piece, which seems a little out of place. Joel Cohen seems to have it just right. He starts with an instrumental introduction, then comes a slightly slower and slurry opening from a soloist. The verses are passed between the other voices in a similar manner with attention to the meaning of the words. It even moves into the bass voice down into the depths of the clef. Gradually the speed increases and the singers begin to join together. It continues with a slow verse in parallel Organum. It is great fun and musically satisfying without being too theatrical. This middle of the road approach is typical of Cohen. He is always musical first and theatrical second.

Let’s also take ‘Fas et nefas’ with words by Gautier de Chatellon. This opens Cohen’s disc. Pickett takes a steady approach with a solid pulse and completely a capella. It uses a version sometimes in two parts and sometimes in three parts (although he never tells us his musical sources) – no frills and all rather serious. Cohen is much faster with percussion and with the tune heard first on various instruments. The words however should be born in mind here "Good and bad walk, as it were, in step/A wastrel cannot make good the vice of a miser": perhaps Pickett has it right. Incidentally Pickett restricts his instruments throughout to harp, vielle, gittern, recorders and the occasional tabor. Cohen has a wider range; Clemencic even more, especially percussion. Tom Binkley allows only medieval fiddle, rebec, lute and drum. Cohen’s speed for ‘Fas et nefas’ is similar to that of Binkley who uses just a little percussion. It is worth bearing in mind that this Cohen CD is dedicated to Binkley’s memory; he died in 1996 at the too early an age of 61. Cohen admits to Binkley’s influence. Binkley quite often goes in for an eastern approach to these melodies as in ‘Veris dulcis in tempore’ . Cohen follows suit in ‘O varium fortune’, a lament on the fickleness of fortune - this is a common theme in these songs. His a capella version for women’s voices finds the soloists being accompanied by a vocal drone whilst the melody, from a Florentine manuscript, is reminiscent of Mozarabic chant.

‘Crucifigat omnes’, in its three part version, as recorded by Pickett, is a remarkable work demonstrating the pleasure gained in the 13th century from very ‘clashy’ harmonies to suit the text ‘Our Lord’s Cross Crucifies all’. It is normally taken with a ponderous and steady ‘gait’. Cohen, oddly uses the tune and its curious harmonies for ‘Curritur ad vocem’: ‘One runs toward the call of money, or toward its sound’. This is a typically cynical text which is performed here like a jolly medieval dance suitable for these words. Consequently the harmonies now sound rather sanitised.

I could go on but much to your relief no doubt will stop and end by saying that I am really enjoying Joel Cohen’s approach. He is more fun than Pickett, more musical than Clemencic and a step further on and more confident with his material than Binkley. This is a good introduction to the fascinating and wonderful Carmina Burana manuscript and to early medieval music in particular.

Gary Higginson

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