A Minnesinger and his 'Vale of Tears'
: Songs and Interludes
NEIDHART (c.1185-c.1240)
+Cantilena 'Der han' [2:33]
*'Mir ist ummaten leyde' [5:28]
*'Summer unde winder' [7:46]
+Clausula (with material from 13th century English monodies) [3:53]
*'Sinc eyn gulden hoen' - +Stantipes 'Der munich' [7:40]
*'Willekome eyn sommerweter suze' [5:54]
*'Ich claghe de blomen' [9:28]
*Allez daz den sumer' [7:04]
Walther VON DER VOGELWEIDE (c.1170-c.1230)
*Vil wol gelopter got (completed by Marc Lewon) [3:10]
Adam DE LA HALLE (c.1237-c.1288)
*Je muir, je muir [1:35]
*'Guoten wib wol uch der eren' (from Jena Liederhandschrift, 14th century) [5:47]
+Muteta 'Non veul mari' (from a 13th century motet) [1:48]
+Stantipes 'Der hedamerschol' (from a 13th century motet) [2:31]
Ensemble Leones (Marc Lewon (voice, lute, gittern, vielle, director, *arranger); Els Janssens-Vanmunster (voice); Baptiste Romain (vielle, bagpipes, voice, +arranger (instrumental piece))
rec. Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Binningen, Switzerland, 6-9 April 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572449 [64:39] 

This superb CD proves that time travel is possible. To listen to these outstanding performances by Ensemble Leones of Neidhart's beautiful music and witty, sophisticated, sometimes outrageous poetry is to be transported back eight hundred years to an incredible period in the history of music and civilisation in general. Everyone who cares about that heritage should hear this recording.
All the Neidhart songs in Leones' recital, both music and texts, are taken from the so-called Frankfurt Neidhart Fragment, dated to around 1300 and housed at Frankfurt-am-Main University. The eight surviving pages of a larger manuscript reveal - at least to the patient and trained eye of a scholar like Lewon - six songs by Neidhart, five with more or less complete melodies. This is the first complete recording and performance, made possible by Lewon's painstaking reconstruction of the surviving material, necessitating in one case the borrowing of appropriate melodies from elsewhere. The results may or may not be entirely authentic, but the songs are compellingly evocative and utterly convincing. The instruments employed by Leones are recent reproductions but they sound terrific, especially when played with the delicacy and intuition of Lewon and Romain.
Thanks to Lewon and his ensemble - whose ranks swell or shrink according to the current project, incidentally - 21st century audiences can enjoy Neidhart's peerless musicianship, specifically his maverick take on the generally more deferent Minnesang tradition. His Dörperlieder ('bumpkin songs') take the themes of the usual hohe Minne ('high love') - the courtly ideals of love from afar and chivalry - and transfer them to rough rustic settings. The real joke is on the gentry who laugh at the buffoonery and coarseness of the peasants in his songs - they are the implied object of Neidhart's insinuations and sarcasm.
It was a bold decision by Leones to perform the nearly ten-minute long song 'Ich claghe de blomen' without instrumental support - over 100 lines in nine stanzas - but such is the power of Neidhart's music and poetry that time flies past. In any case, the alternation of male and female voice, as well as the interpolation of purely instrumental items, makes listening to this recital as varied an experience as it is aesthetic.
The CD ends with a rather out-of-place song by Adam de la Halle, billed as a 'bonus track' and certainly sounding like an afterthought. The preceding song by the great Walther von der Vogelweide is at least no anachronism, but its inclusion is not really explained in the booklet.
As the notes explain, the German of Neidhart is not strictly Middle High German (MHG) but a Low version of the same, reflecting where the texts were written, and explaining why some of the sounds are reminiscent of modern Dutch. At any rate, Neidhart's language should prove at least as intelligible to modern Low German speakers as Geoffrey Chaucer's is to those familiar with today's English.
On the subject of pronunciation, both Marc Lowen and Els Janssens-Vanmunster sound entirely authentic, and their excellent diction only heightens the listener's joy. Their singing style is folk-like but not 'rustic', emotional without affectation, plaintive or humorous as appropriate without recourse to melodrama. Practically impeccable, in other words.
In his interesting notes Neidhart expert Marc Lewon points out that the 'von Reuental' still frequently attached to his name is erroneous, founded on "a nineteenth-century misapprehension". Curiously he, and Naxos in their title, set about perpetuating another of those with a mistranslation of 'Reuental' - 'riuwental' in MHG - as "vale of tears". In MHG tears is 'trene', 'Tränen' in modern German, whereas 'riuwe' equates with modern German 'Jammer' or 'Schmerz' - the minnesinger's 'lament' or 'pain'. The Nithart of these poems is a knight, not a cry-baby!
In his acknowledgements Lewon also thanks the proof-reader for checking his translations from German into English, but some of the phraseology is decidedly shaky for all that. For example, "in his Bavarian sphere" for "in seiner bairischen Heimat" ('in his Bavarian homeland'); "but from which the German Minnesang of Neidhart’s time was yet but far"; or "Neidhart only played the fool" for "Neidhart [...] spielte nur vordergründig den Narren" ('Neidhart only played the fool ostensibly'). Sometimes the language is so inapt as to misrepresent the original: "They show the distinctive trademarks of Neidhart’s oeuvre and touch on many aspects of his lyrical portfolio, featuring content, form, and musical modes typical to his work" is only tangentially equivalent to the German, quite apart from the linguistic horror that is "lyrical portfolio". Punctuation is also inconsistent and sometimes appears almost randomly applied.
Full sung texts, with translations into modern German and English, are downloadable for free from the Naxos website here. The German translations are good, the English somewhat clumsier, with numerous misjudgements of term and register, as well as a few, sometimes meaning-changing typos - but perfectly serviceable nevertheless.
This CD was briefly reviewed here last year, when Naxos released it as a download only. Pace that review, no harp is used in this recording.
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Peerless musicianship.