Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376?-1445) was a German Minnesinger who lived from the last quarter of the fourteenth century (he was born around 1376 in the South Tyrol) to 1445. He left home while still a child (aged ten years) to serve as page to a wandering knight. Perhaps his most famous song, Es fügt sich [tr.1], describes the experience. Although, as the introductory notes (in German, English and French) make clear, the lyrics of Wolkenstein's songs are not expected to reveal anything new about the composer's life, it was a colorful one.
This excellent CD containing two dozen of his songs performed with style and commitment by the Ensemble für frühe Musik Augsburg has the explicit aim of bringing some of the aspects and stages of that biography (and its world) to life. The project has succeeded admirably.
The songs suit the style and approach of the Ensemble very well. It has five performers, four men and one woman; all of them both sing and play between two and four instruments… shawm, vielle, percussion, recorder, harp, lute and so on. This lends an integrity and intimacy to the way in which the works are received. Ich spür ain tier [tr.22], for example, is intense and close without being claustrophobic. Its two players (vielle (Heinz Schwamm), mediaeval lute (Rainer Herpichböhm)) and singer (Hans Ganser) perform almost as one.
Other tracks emphasis the dramatic and interplay between performers. Dialects and (at times heavy) vernacular just avoid being overbearing: the earnestness and economy of Wolkenstein's music and words always prevail. Conveying the comic in an idiom this distant from our own times is always a gamble. The Ensemble has got the balance about right – a careful mix of high spirits without too much audacity; a decorum that's not too staid. It's tempting to think that Wolkenstein's own breadth of experience (he traveled widely, for example; was a diplomat; and fought in wars of the period) is consciously communicated through the urbanity and deftness with which the Ensemble craft their delivery.
Wolkenstein's songs address those areas of experience which you would expect: love, music and art themselves, loss, conflict, travel, religious aspiration, social and personal ambition, corruption and frailty. But the producers of this CD have indeed so arranged the works in such a way that (when listened to attentively, ideally with the texts and commentary from the booklet) we really can get a fair idea of the composer's life and his world. That's a happy outcome.
The accompanying booklet, as has been said, was designed to provide context and background for Wolkenstein. This it does – though not so completely as someone new to the composer and/or to the genre might have wished. Although the texts are there in their entirety, and manuscript sources given, no translations from the Middle High German are offered. Though in fact, anyone with a modest amount of modern German will have little difficulty understanding the words as sung. The booklet also contains a useful chronology.
The acoustic is pleasant and clean; the recording (a current reissue) dates originally from 1987, in the Barbara-Saal, Augsburg. This varied and well-performed anthology of mediaeval German song by one of its most vivacious exponents, who certainly packed much event and change of fortune into his relatively long life, is well worth a listen. There is next to nothing else by Wolkenstein currently available on CD. Recommended.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey