Oswald von WOLKENSTEIN (c.1377-1445)
Lied/Love Songs: Vil lieber grüsse süsse [4.03]; Wach auff, mein hort [3.21]; Frölich, zärtlich, lieplich [2.53]; Mich tröst ein adeliche mait – instrumental [3.22]; Ain Grasserin [2.58]; Frolich so well wir [1.21]; Stand auff, Maredel: vocal [4.52] and instrumental [1.15] versions; Die minne füget niemand [1.25]; Gelück und hail [3.13]; Improvisation [6.47]; Des himels trone [1.33]; Fröleich geschrai [2.14]; Los frau und hör des hornes schall/Sag an, herzlieb [3.06]; Herz, prich, rich, sich [3.34]; Simm, gredlin, Gret [4.36]; Mein herz [5.56]; Du ausserweltes schöns [4.48]; Ain güt geboren edel man [4.15]; Es nahet gen der vasennacht [5.44]
Ensemble Unicorn/Michael Posch
rec. Wiener Hofburgkapelle, 26-29 January 2009
RAUMKLANG RK2901 [71.17]
Now here’s an interesting man. We know more about his career, quite political, and sex life than most, especially characters from the medieval period. Much of his ‘life-style’ is reflected in his songs, of which there are over one hundred. Some are monophonic but several are polyphonic. If you think of the paintings of Cranach and Grunewald, - the odd figures and somewhat coarse subject matter - then that’s Wolkenstein.
Not surprisingly therefore if you already have a Wolkenstein CD - and there have been a few like ‘Knightly Passions’ performed by Philip Pickett’s New London Consort in 1996 (Decca - L’Oiseau Lyre 444 1732) - then you are unlikely to double up on most of the songs. If you do there will be major differences in the way the numbers actually sound.
Lets take the example of Wach auff, mein hort about a young couple who, having spent a night of idyllic bliss together, have to part at dawn. The general thrust of this new disc is one of a good, honest folksy style. It’s slightly rough and suitably rumpy-pumpy but quite fun and never sentimental. That is the approach adopted, above all, by tenor Hermann Oswald. This is though a love song of yearning and of the utter sadness of parting. Both in the chosen tempo and in the sensitivity of the singing Pickett’s group seems to grasp a fuller meaning of the text and it’s love longing. This comment applies to their approach generally although they do let their hair down on occasions.
The CD cover is adorned, not only with a rather comical picture of Wolkenstein - am I alone in being reminded of H.K. Grüber? - but with the words Frölich, zärtlich, lieplich. This is the text of track 3, a typical example of Wolkenstein’s beautiful alliteration ‘radiantly, blissfully, gently and quietly’. These are the words a husband speaks in adoration of his young wife’s ‘graceful and noble body’. It is typical of the composer also in that it adapts or at least is related to a French song of the preceding generation – En doulz flans. Although in two parts, Michael Posch has done the medieval thing of successfully adding a third, a contra-tenor part, as he does in several others. Incidentally the aforementioned New London Consort performs the two-part version both instrumentally and with the text. Similarly Frolich so well wir, a typical spring-song, has had a contra-tenor part arranged by Marc Lewon who also features as a lute and fiddle player. In Wolkenstein’s amazing Stand auff, Maredel (also recorded by Pickett) we hear two female voices simultaneously as one woman is attached to a certain young farm-worker and the other, an older married woman also fancies spending some time with this young man. For this, the composer takes and develops another popular French chanson of the period Jour à jour la vie. The performance readily brings out the comedy of the setting and is followed by a brief instrumental version.
Sex is never too far from Oswald’s sight line. Die minne füget niemand uses another French melody, Talent mes pris. But here the composer alters the text to relate paying an innkeeper his due by being a successful lover, which the writer quite clearly is not.
The performance of Des himels trone and the piece itself are rather curious. It sounds like a piece of 12th century Notre-Dame polyphony. It features a free two-part conductus but with a triple-time dance section which comes twice. The piece has had a third part added by Marc Lewon as the couple, celebrating the Spring Solstice, dance before giving themselves to each other.
As with Philip Pickett some pieces are performed instrumentally: Mich tröst ein adeliche mait for example on organetto, recorders and other intriguing instruments. This has the effect of bringing out the quite complex polyphony more clearly. Talking of instruments, I don’t like the use of the Jew’s Harp which is the first sound on the CD. It is used elsewhere as in the erotic song Ain Grasserin. I’m sorry, and I know it’s me, but it just sounds silly. We are also treated to an instrumental improvisation but we are not told on which tune it is based.
My two favourite tracks come side by side. Simm Gredlin, Gret is an intimate and delicate love duet for tenor and alto (man and woman) expressing their physical love for each other. And I love Herz, prich, rich, sich, an anguished love song set as a virtuoso hocket for two voices. The last track is a ribald carnival song, performed - as with all of the music - with the real character, both vocally and instrumentally, that makes this disc a very attractive acquisition.
The thick booklet runs to 80 pages. As well as full texts in the original and in English (as well as French and Italian) there is a useful résumé of each piece, pictures of the performers and a fascinating essay by Ulrich Müller. The recording is close but allows the performers space and definition. Definitely worth searching out.
  Gary Higginson
Performed with real character. Makes this disc a very attractive acquisition. Definitely worth searching out.