As I write this review, the winter seems to
have been going on for far too long, making me more appreciative
of the love of Spring which pervades many of these songs and dances.
Like their Middle English counterparts in the Harley Lyrics, five
of the tracks on the Christophorus CD celebrate what the first
piece calls the temps clar
, the time of clear skies, and
the others concern themselves with that perennial theme of courtly
love, the man’s subjugation to his beloved. Several of the pieces
combine the two themes.
The words and music are drawn from the three main centres of the high middle ages, the trobadors
of Southern France, the trouvères
from the North of France, and the Minnesänger
of the German-speaking lands. The first two names literally mean ‘finders’, as if the sentiments were out there, waiting to be put into words and set to music; the Minnesänger
were so named because they followed their French counterparts in making love (Middle High German Minne
) the subject of their songs. As a later German poet put it:
Sie singen von Lenz und Liebe, von sel’ger goldner Zeit,
Von Freiheit, Männerwürde, von Treu und Heiligkeit;
Sie singen von allem Süßen, was Menschenbrust durchlebt,
Sie singen von allem Hohen, was Menschenherz erhebt.
They sing of springtime and love, of a blessed golden time,
of freedom, human worth, faith and holiness;
they sing of everything sweet that human breasts experience,
they sing of everything high that human hearts exalt.
[Ludwig Uhland, Des Sängers Fluch
The performances are forthright and enjoyable; if you like the ‘jolly japes’ approach to medieval music, you cannot fail to enjoy it. Even if, like me, you have some doubts about the scholarly authenticity of the approach, you will probably still like it. The singing is competent and with an appropriately ‘folky’ flavour, especially true of Sabine Lutzenberger in En mai
(tr.4) and Under den Linden
(tr.8). It’s only when you come to compare the Gothic Voices on the Hyperion CD that the limitations of the Augsburg Ensemble become apparent.
That applies equally to Gothic Voices’ other recordings. Listen to the Augsburg version of Bernart de Ventadorn’s Can vei la lauzeta
(Christophorus, tr.3) and you will be moved and entertained; listen to Leigh Nixon on Gothic Voices’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
(Hyperion Helios CDH55273, tr.12 – see review
) and you will be moved even more. On Christophorus, the piece is extended to twice its ‘proper’ length by the instrumental accompaniment. Go to the Hyperion and you will also be able to compare Bernart’s song about the lark (la lauzeta
) with a Northern French version which was probably influenced by it (Quand voi l’aloete
, tr.13) and you will also have the benefit of Christopher Page’s scholarly but readable notes – all at budget price. We cannot know exactly how the language of medieval Provence sounded, but on Christophorus Rainer Herpichböhm seems to be trying harder than Nixon to differentiate it from Northern French.
The best music here – and the best performances – are to be found in the two Middle High German tracks: Walther von der Vogelweide’s Under den Linden
(tr.8) is one of the best known poems of the period and the chosen melody fits it well. Neidhart is less well known, but his hymn to the sweet summer weather, Willekomen sumerweter süeze
(tr.11), provides a fitting conclusion to the CD. There are five extracts from the Carmina Burana
, the most interesting of which is on track 9, where the Latin text, Tempus transit gelidum
, relates the coming of spring, and the Middle High German Vrowe ih pin dir undertan
(Modern High German, Frau, ich bin dir untertan
) illustrates the lover’s subservience to his mistress.
The instrumental accompaniments are at best toe-tapping, at worst intrusive. The fading-in and fading-out of some of the tracks (e.g. tr.5) is certainly more annoying than welcome.
The Hyperion reissue features medieval music from a later period, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the pieces grouped together under the headings of prominent members of the Order of the Garter, commencing with Edward III, its founder, and culminating with Henry V, his great grandson. The themes are more varied, adding to springtime and love most of the other themes from Uhland’s list, as reflected in the aspirations of the order.
In particular, the later middle ages developed the praise of the Virgin Mary – often in terms hard to differentiate from those applied to the beloved mistress, borrowing the language of the Song of Songs, directly, as in Pyamour’s Quam pulchra es
(tr.12) and indirectly, as on the following track, Dunstable’s Speciosa facta es
. There is still plenty of courtly love here, however, in the two settings of Ce que fol pense
(trs.3 and 4), for example. We used to think of the fifteenth century as a time when such themes had become merely conventional – Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages
– but the later pieces here and on Gothic Voices’ other recordings of later medieval music belie that theory.
The development of polyphony, with several voices singing separate but related parts, means that the music of the later period is also more complex. In some respects, that makes it harder for the modern ear to adjust; paradoxically, the music of the earlier period is often easier to come to terms with, as is the rich, soaring polyphony of the sixteenth century. The effort is very worthwhile, however. This new reissue is as good a place to begin as any; try the sound of Margaret Philpot’s solo voice in Lullay, lullay
(tr.5) for starters and persevere with the other multi-voice items.
You could hardly be in better hands than those of Gothic Voices. Though their approach is academic – Christopher Page is a Cambridge don – their many recordings for Hyperion and other labels also bring the music alive. Their approach is different from that of the Augsburg Ensemble; Page believes that vocal music should normally be performed without instrumental accompaniment. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and I have always found Gothic Voices interpretations both convincing and enjoyable. Moreover, their singing is much more secure than that of the Augsburg Ensemble. There is instrumental music here, too, very ably performed by Andrew Lawrence-King on the medieval harp, but these instrumental items are used as interludes for variety between the unaccompanied vocal pieces.
This is one of the very best of the series of Gothic Voices recordings – until very recently it was available only as part of a 3-CD set of recordings which Hyperion (rightly) believed best represented their contribution to the appreciation of medieval music.
The Christophorus notes are fairly rudimentary; they offer the original texts, but no translations, though few modern French or German readers would be able to cope with the medieval versions of their languages, let alone Anglophones. The language of the trobadors
, medieval Occitan or Provençal, is particularly difficult to follow. You should be able to find translations of at least some of them online, but that really isn’t good enough. The English translations of the brief notes on each piece are often rather fractured.
The Hyperion CD, on the other hand, offers all the apparatus of the original full-price issue. As I had damaged the booklet of my copy of that original, on CDA66238 – which shows how often it has been used since I bought it in 1986 – I was particularly pleased to be able to download the new booklet from the Hyperion site.
One criticism of both recordings concerns the short playing time, not wholly excused by the fact that both recordings were made before CDs had totally replaced the LP: even LPs were capable of much longer playing times by the mid-1980s.
Both CDs are well recorded. The Christophorus is well worth considering – it’s unfailingly entertaining – but the Hyperion reissue inhabits a different world. The performances are both more secure and more scholarly and the documentation is far superior. It also costs about half of the price at which its rival is being offered on the websites which I have checked. Buy both by all means, but go for the Hyperion – and its stable-mates, most of which have now also transferred to the budget Helios label – in preference. Please check my review
of the most recent of these, The Spirits of England and France (Volume 2).