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Henry Hope
Early Music, February 2013

[...] Marc Lewon’s generally excellent liner notes give the listener an up-to-date reassessment of the Minnesänger’s output and his reception history. With this disc, Ensemble Leones presents the first full recording of the Frankfurt Neidhart fragment (D-F Ms. germ. Oct.18) with all its music and lyrics. Neglected by scholars and performers, this manuscript is arguably the earliest musical source for Minnesang alongside the Jenaer Liederhandschrift, with which it shares its Low German origin. The disc features two further debut recordings: a contrafactum on a text by the Tugendhafter Schreiber, Guoten wib wol üch der eren, and Walther von der Vogelweide’s Vil wol gelopter got.

The recording’s alternation between male and female singers, excellent diction, unobtrusive accompaniment and the new edition put together by Lewon for this project (to be published by Verlag der Spielleute) make the disc an outstanding addition to Minnesang scholarship. The rustic elements often associated with Neidhart’s poetry are banished into the accompaniment and the instrumental pieces. The rendition of Neidhart’s Ich claghe de blomen by Els Janssens-Vanmunster demonstrates how effective a cappella performance of medieval song can be, and that strophic songs can indeed be sensitive and far from boring. However, including the full texts with the CD instead of providing them exclusively online would have been preferable. © Early Music




Byzantion
MusicWeb International, December 2012

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. All who care about that heritage should hear this recording. © 2012 MusicWeb International



Peter Loewen
American Record Guide, May 2012

…Neidhart preferred to set his love songs in the rustic countryside among the peasants rather than in the court. Summer songs invoke parallels between burgeoning love and verdant beauty, while love languishes in the cold of winter.

The singers for their part demonstrate the expressive potential of this gorgeous music by using ornaments, voice inflections, and excellent diction. Marc Lewon’s animated commentary elaborates on the various noble and sordid topics of Neidhart’s songs… © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide online




Byzantion
MusicWeb International, April 2012

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.

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.

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.

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. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review



Mark Sealey
Classical Net, April 2012

Among of the first things that will strike you on listening to this highly enjoyable collection of the works of the Minnesinger, Neidhart von Reuenthal (c.1185-1240), and his (near) contemporaries is the focus, the clarity of projection, the paring down to his and their essential musicality by Ensemble Leones (Els Janssens-Vanmunster, voice; Baptiste Romain, vielle & bagpipe; Marc Lewon, voice, lute, vielle). For theirs is a highly idiomatic and persuasive set of arrangements on this appealing CD from Naxos. This is music that is almost necessarily “arranged” for suitable instruments. It’s not always completely clear where the work of Neidhart ends and that of his arranger(s)—chiefly Marc Lewon—begins. Nevertheless, arranging 800 years later can all too easily be made to sound either more antique or more in keeping with a twenty-first century imagination than does the original music justice. In fact, its multi-layered aspects (see below) require such simplicity.

...throughout this just over an hour-long CD, there is an element of surprise—almost… “this is how I see the world, in all its beauty and wonder. My response to what I see is as valid as what I see”. If you accept that we’ve in part lost that relationship with the world, it’s all the more difficult to recreate it in performance now. But a humility and technical expertise by the members of Ensemble Leones work admirably and drive completely into the essence of this wonderful music. Their tempi and phrasing balance contemplation with certainty, wonder with forbearance, and the articulation of the texts—as said, clarity itself—produces the most felicitous and persuasive blend of acceptance with humor. These are songs that are built upon a Vale of Tears, for sure. But as Gegensang, anti-Minnesang. The conventions of courtly love and the troubadours are turned on their head. Not as pastiche or overdone parody. Still less as satire. But surely inviting—as did Shakespeare—his noble listeners to examine how far from the ideals celebrated in their culture they had departed. Neidhart’s protagonists are the rural poor with apparent pretensions to such courtly ideals. Yet they fail.

But the complexity goes deeper still: Neidhart tended to classify songs into Winter and Summer “moods” with many of the obvious (and some less obvious) connotations. So there is a kind of “code” of associations, hints, direct criticism and endorsement of mores, glosses, commentaries and self-expression. But all filtered, one knows, through the mind of a very astute and sensitive observer. It is exactly this complexity in all its paradoxically simple demonstration that the three performers of Ensemble Leones have achieved so effectively and seemingly effortlessly here. Their own singing bridges the gap between sharp observer and imaginative creator: they make both necessary. Yet fresh. The manuscript the Ensemble has used is the earliest surviving collection, the Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment of about 1300. Given its poor and incomplete state of preservation, substantial reconstruction has been necessary.

The acoustic is everything one would expect: close, clear and plain. If this is repertoire, previous experience of which has even remotely pleased, then don’t miss this CD. For specialists and lovers of this aspect of musicology, it must be bought and explored repeatedly. Highly recommended. © 2012 Classical Net Read complete review



Thorsten Preuss
Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio), March 2012

For decades now a stereotype has been stubbornly perpetuated amongst German musicians, propagating a naive view of the Middle Ages involving the wearing of droll costumes and jingling bells. But now redemption is near. Finally a CD has come out which takes minnesong seriously as a refined, reflective and multi-layered form of art.

Der Tannhäuser, Walther von der Vogelweide, Neidhart von Reuental: The names of the German minnesingers have a pleasing sound. Their music less so. Most recordings seem like the burlesque soundtrack to a medieval banquet: coarse and rattling, just as you would imagine the songs of people who run around in knight’s armour with matted hair, whose primary concern is carousing, and who think that the world is a disk.

For decades now a stereotype has been stubbornly perpetuated amongst German musicians, propagating a naive view of the Middle Ages involving the wearing of droll costumes and jingling bells. But now redemption is near. Finally a CD has come out which takes minnesong seriously as a refined, reflective and multi-layered form of art. Ensemble Leones has dedicated itself—academically sound and aesthetically pleasing at the same time—to one of the central authors of minnesong: that famous Neidhart who was active at the beginning of the 13th century in southern Germany and who in his “summer songs,” puts peasants and commoners on the stage in order to satirise the noble in-crowd at court of his time with subtle irony.

The success of this CD is thanks to all three ensemble members, with lutenist Marc Lewon,—who had devoted himself to Neidhart already since his master’s thesis—leading the way. He made a critical edition of the earliest manuscript of Neidhart-melodies, the so-called Frankfurt Fragment from about 1300, and thereby made it possible to undertake the world-premiere recording of the six songs found in this early source. The soundness of this philological approach had a positive, audible effect upon the interpretation: Lewon frees Neidhart from his folksy knockabout comedy image and re-introduces him to the ranks of the leading European poet-composers of his time.

To this end he is aided by the enchanting voice of Els Janssens-Vanmunster. She interprets the texts in a nuanced way and yet leaves enough space so that every song can develop its own atmosphere. The shape she gives to Neidhart’s grand, ten-minute love lament with utmost intensity—and completely a capella—puts it forth as one of the highlights of this CD. Finally, this subtle Neidhart portrait owes many details to Baptiste Romain, who portrays the songs on his vielle sensitively, and whose imaginatively improvised interludes prove that a bagpipe does not by any means always have to blare.

The CD is rounded out by music of Neidhart’s contemporaries. Amongst these, one song by Walther von der Vogelweide awakens the hope that Ensemble Leones might one day dedicate itself to this other great personage of German minnesong. © 2012 Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio)



Bianca Flier
Regio Magazin, March 2012

“Neidhart – A Minnesinger and his Vale of Tears” is the second CD by the early music ensemble Leones. Following “Fantaisies de Josquin”, which was nominated for the International Classical Music Award, this is now the world premiere recording of the entire “Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment”, dating from around 1300. Six songs by the minnesinger Neidhart have been transcribed and reconstructed on the basis of this original source. In addition to these, the CD also includes a song by the “Tugendhafte Schreiber” (i.e. “The Virtuous Scribe”) and a Sangspruch by Walther von der Vogelweide as well as ancient instrumental pieces. The Leones’ arrangements distinguish themselves from the more commonly known Neidhart melodies by their  decidedly courtly style. It was indeed specifically this “otherness” of the Frankfurt Fragment-melodies which inspired the ensemble to this unique recording. Marc Lewon (voice, lute), the driving force of the ensemble, performs together with Els Janssens-Vanmunster (voice) and Baptiste Romain (vielle, bagpipes). © 2012 Regio Magazin

(Translation: Catherine Motuz)



Barbara Stühlmeyer
Karfunkel Magazin, February 2012

With his latest production on the minnesinger who came up with the concept of “anti-minnesang” the Neidhart specialist Marc Lewon presents one of the earliest Neidhart-sources, maybe even one of the earliest transmissions for minnesang-melodies at all. Besides their artistic involvement the ensemble also worked intensively with the source, made a facsimile, transcription, and reconstruction of the songs to create a basis for further artistic and scientific work with Neidhart. Performing on the musically highest level, technically entirely beyond reproach this recording is a must-have for anyone who is seriously interested in Medieval Music.

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Neidhart was one of the most popular minnesingers of the later Middle Ages. With the new recording at hand the renowned Neidhart specialist Marc Lewon has put forward an excellent interpretation of this inventor of “corrupted courtly love” both in respect to sound and musicality. It is the world premiere recording of the Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment, a manuscript which contains several of Neidhart’s songs with their melodies. Lewon presents Neidhart as a member of the courtly culture of the higher nobility, who delighted in the new topics raised by this poet-composer, but who at the same time also set great value upon an excellent interpretation. This recording is proof for the by now matter-of-course cooperation between research and music, which found a both convincing and well-sounding synthesis in the character of Lewon. © 2012 Karfunkel Magazin

(translation by Kirsty Whatley)



Klaus Härtel
Crescendo (Germany), February 2012

Neidhart
A Punk from the Middle Ages

For over 700 years the “Frankfurt Fragment” by the minnesinger Neidhart lay dormant in the archives and was only seldomly unearthed for scientific or musical purposes. But now the fragment, containing six songs with five melodies, has not only been unearthed but also recorded for the first time in its entirety. For this Marc Lewon, an expert in the field of medieval music and director of Ensemble Leones, has worked with the fragments to create a playable version. What is more, these versions are not only playable but also listenable. Whether they really sounded like this, no one knows. But it is certainly appealing to hear how this rebel of minnesang, this punk from the Middle Ages criticised the noble establishment—for Neidhart’s songs consist of a parody on classical minnesang. He transferred the settings of his poems from courtly realms into a superficially rustic milieu. Exciting. © 2012 Crescendo (Germany) Read original review in German

(translation by Kirsty Whatley)



MaestroSteve
Cinemusical, February 2012

Recording: /
Performance:/

The performances are really excellent with clear diction (a plus for the early language usage). The quality of the voices is very pure and unaffected, though not without proper emotional intensity. The trio of performers (Marc Lowen, Els Janssens-Vanmunster, and Baptiste Romain) manage to lend this music a timeless quality suffusing the instrumental dance-like works with a good sense of rhythm and subtle improvisational qualities that are simply marvelous. The choice to include instrumental music is a definite plus for students exploring this music for the first time. The works allow for good comparisons of style for the period and will open the door to further study of text-setting as well. © 2012 Cinemusical Read complete review



Clifford Bartlett
Early Music Review, February 2012

So many recordings of medieval songs sound incredibly beautiful but neutral with respect to the words. This however, is different. The singing is direct but not coarse, and the accompaniment matches. The poems themselves are incredibly sophisticated, with complex irony, as the excellent booklet note describes. The texts and translations are on the Naxos website… The songs here come from a generally ignored but early MS from c. 1300… © 2012 Early Music Review



Lothar Jahn
Minnesang.com, January 2012

With this recording by Ensemble “Leones”, dedicated to the earliest source fragment of Neidhart's melodies, Neidhart is led back from the dance floor into the courtly realm. These earlier melodies are not yet smoothed out enough to serve as catchy dance-tunes. Neidhart thus appears more subtle than we are used to. But he still remains unique!

It is the aim of this recording to repatriate Neidhart into the circle of the courtly minnesingers. When analysing the melodies of the early Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment, the director of Ensemble Leones, Marc Lewon, detected a very sensitive poet and composer, not drawn so eagerly into the maelstrom of rustic dance entertainment as the catchy tunes of later transmissions in his oeuvre seem to suggest. But do not fear, everything is there: themes of nature and amorous laments reliably end in vicious brawls, with impertinent villains who threaten the knight because they begrudge his success with the ladies. Although Lewon and Els Janssens-Vanmunster use their voices as cautiously as the often minimalistic accompaniment, as a conscious antithesis to the brute-rustic medieval market interpretations à la “Maienzeit”, enough of the humour and deeper meaning shines through. This is enhanced by the refined little instrumental suites from Baptiste Romain and Lewon, which give brief glances of fragments of well-known Neidhart melodies taken from other sources. The crucial difference [of Neidhart’s songs] becomes clear with the direct comparison of the inserted song of the “Virtuous scribe” who worked in the vicinity of Landgrave Herman I. [of Thuringia], and who also supposedly took part in the legendary Singing Contest [on the Wartburg]. His “Guoten wib wol üch der eren”, using Konrad’s [of Würzburg] “Wintermelody” from the Jena Liederhandschrift, exudes humble gallantry. However, an almost 10 minute a-capella version of “Ich claghe de blomen”, full of resentment over unrequited love, the recklessness of village villains and greed at court puts Neidhart’s adversary in his place.

The song “Allez daz den sumer” renouncing worldly life, touchingly sung by Marc Lewon while accompanying himself, marks the conclusion with a degree of resignation. This finale is given a somewhat conciliatory note with Walther’s [von der Vogelweide] “Vil wol gelopter got” and Adam de la Halle’s “Je muir, je muir”. There is no doubt: Neidhart is being pulled deeper into his “Vale of Tears” [i.e. “Reuental”]. By doing so he comes closer to us on a human level – as a man who has seen much suffering but who has found his way to defy destiny through fine rhetoric and wit, in text and music. © 2012 Minnesang.com See original review in German



Martin Uhlig
www.spielleut.de, January 2012

Great sound, the pure intonation goes without saying, brilliant rolls and ornaments, dramatic, wistful interpretation of a Neidhart song. The opener thus points the way for the whole CD, for this recording is deeply doleful and after all fits the CD’s title like a glove: truly a Minnesinger and his vale of tears! Finally no rustic croaking, no three-quarter time peasant dance songs, no crude satirical interpretation as one would usually hear under the heading of “Neidhart”. This is likely not least because the performers around Marc Lewon (Els Janssens-Vanmunster, Baptiste Romain) worked with the earliest surviving source of Neidhart songs (with melodies). Written down around the year 1300, it is thus by far the manuscript closest to Neidhart’s lifetime. (And thus very close to the Manesse Codex.) And this is audible! Even such well-known tunes as “Sinc eyn gulden hoen” sound different—because the earlier source transmits a similar but still very different melody than later copies (which for the most part date only from the 15th century).

At the same time it becomes clear: Neidhart was no peasant. He also did not sing about his so called “village villains”. He sang about the moral degeneration of his fellow noblemen. How they must have smirked when hearing about the supposed dimwitted pranks of the peasants—not knowing that they themselves were the target of the mockery.

Even if it was already part of the concept and the “show” back then—how frustrated Neidhart must have been about it all. This is at least the impression one gets from first hearing the CD. The Vale of Tears, the “Reuental”, becomes tangible and concrete, as it were.

Nonetheless, it was after all probably this mockery, this satire, which made sure that Neidhart’s oeuvre became so popular and was transmitted so abundantly.

All the songs are recorded with all strophes which on no account becomes boring—just to stifle potential fears right away—after all, the songs are not just being rattled out, but stories are being told. The melodies are servants to the text in such a manner only seldom heard in interpretations of minnesang.

Apart from the 6 songs of this early manuscript there are another couple of minnesongs. (Marvellous: “Guoten wib wol üch der eren”, by the Tugendhafte Schreiber (“The Virtuos Scribe”)—with a melody from the Jena Liederhandschrift. For this one alone it’s worth buying the CD, even if the song has nothing to do with Neidhart). Equally remarkable: “Ich claghe de blomen”, a song of nine and a half minutes, performed by Els Janssens-Vanmunster soloistically. Simply nine minutes of a sung story. Wonderful! To properly follow the stories it is helpful to download the texts from the internet which are unfortunately not provided in the booklet. (Because one has to hunt a bit for the link, here is our service: Songtexts Neidhart

Several nice and pleasantly arranged instrumental pieces (the guys prove they can also “rock”, for instance in “Hedamerschol”) round off the recording in the appropriate style.

Appetizer recommendations: Guoten wib wol üch der eren, Ich claghe de blomen, Der hedamerschol, Allez daz den sumer.

Conclusion: A pearl in a rough shell! © 2012 www.spielleut.de Read original review in German

(translation by Kirsty Whatley)



Sean Smith
Lute Society of America Quarterly, December 2011

Too often we listen to our lute music with an eye on the technique and an ear on the voices and forget that lutes could play a different role where stories were told and the entertainment played to the real life adventures of those in the room. This recording presents such a scenario. Marc Lewon with his group, Ensemble Leones (Els Janssens-Vanmunster, voice; Baptiste Romain, vielles and bagpipes and himself on lute, gittern, vielle and voice) masterly record the Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment, c1300, in its entirety. The fragment is centered on the minnesinger, Neidhart, who spun clever tales and created the songs to support them. The texts are fun to read now and must have been a hoot at the time. [Note: be sure to download the PDFs before listening.] In a time when the trouvères were dying and gnashing on their unrequited love, Neidhart played the fool and invited the rustic neighbors into the stories to illustrate with winks and nudges. There are a few added instrumentals from contemporary sources to help the transitions or fill out a mood and the disc ends with Adam de la Halle’s Je muir, je muir to bring this serendipitous anthology to a close.

The recording begins with full-voiced 5ths that grow into an extemporized decoration on a song lacking text. From the 2nd track onward the collection of songs over vielles, gittern and plectrum lute are spellbinding stories. The text moves quickly and it’s evident the stories are the important part. Even in my German speaking deficiency I usually found my listening focus on the diction and tone. That’s not to say the instrumentation lacks interest. They simply and adroitly use the instruments to direct interest to the singer. When the instruments have the field to themselves they keep it interesting and more—far more. Two “sumer texts”, for example, Sinc eyn gulden hoen and Willekome eyn sommerweter suze played back to back are cheerful and bring out oodles of warmth.

It’s a convincing combination and all the songs feel at home in their arrangements, even the plectrum lute playing over bagpipes sounds more natural than peanut butter and jelly to my ear. If you’ve wanted to explore a corner of this (sadly “flyover”) repertory this is an excellent start. If you’re a fan of Marc Lewon and the adventures of his mittelalter lutework, a double reward. © 2011 Lute Society of America Quarterly



Brian Wilson Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, July 2011

This recording combines music by Nithart or Neidhart with that of other Minnesänger (Walter von der Vogelweide and the anonymous ‘virtuous writer’, who also participated in the Wartburg Contest, celebrated in Wagner’s Tannhäuser) and their Provençal and Northern French counterparts, the troubadours and trouvères, who jointly stand at the source of the stream of Western European music. The performances are scholarly—as are Marc Lewon’s notes, which demolish the idea that Neidhart’s full name was ‘von Reuenthal’*—and convincing to my non-specialist ear. The lack of texts and translations is a problem: my Middle High German is pretty good, but not good enough to pick up all the words. Some of the texts are available online or in collections such as Minnesangs Frühling, but you may wish to wait in hope of a release on CD with texts.

* meaning simply ‘vale of tears’. Even the name Nithart, envy-heart, may be a pseudonym.

My thanks to Mark Lewon for pointing out that the texts and translations are available here. I forgot to say that these performances are not only scholarly, I also enjoyed hearing them. © 2011 MusicWeb International



Katja Angenent
Miroque

Neidhart is ranked among the most famous minnesingers. Ensemble Leones has turned its attention to this medieval singer-songwriter in an unorthodox manner – they portray the plaintive, wistful aspects of his work – the “Vale of Tears” which gives the CD its title. When putting the CD in the player, beautiful, yet deeply sorrowful, calm pieces, with a sacred touch, resound from the loudspeakers. On the first listening through the CD, the piece “Ich claghe de blomen” attracts attention. This is a piece which is sustained for its length of almost 10 minutes solely by a female voice and which nonetheless never loses its tension. A puristic interpretation artfully underlines the mournful tenor of the composition and as a side-effect provides an almost pious atmosphere.

Ensemble Leones consists of founder Marc Lewon who, on this CD, sings and also plays the lute and vielle, the soprano Els Janssens-Vanmunster, and Baptiste Romain, who plays vielle and the bagpipes (the latter instrument unusual for the Early Music genre). This music surely has no place in the next Renaissance Fair, but whoever is curious for an adequate realisation of academic research in the realm of historical music should take the trouble to listen to the CD several times to allow the music sink in. It takes time for a modern listener to open up to the seemingly unfamiliar tunes.

As it is common for Early Music publications the booklet contains an introduction to Neidhart’s life and works as well as short portraits of the participating musicians. But unfortunately the sung texts are not included. © 2012 Miroque

(Translation: Catherine Motuz)






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