Troubadours, Trouveres & Minnesanger (CD review)

And Other Courtly Arts. Rene Clemencic, Clemencic Consort; Paul Hillier, Theater of Voices; Andrew Lawrence-King, The Harp Consort; The Dufay Collective; Drew Minter, contre-tonor; Mary Springfels, The Newberry Consort. Harmonia Mundi Century HMX 2908166.

Listening to this disc and reading the extensive booklet notes that go with it are a little like taking a history course. It's a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, if you just sit back and listen to the music, the album can provide quite a lot of enjoyment, too.

The music here covers the Middle Ages; it's volume four of twenty compilation titles in the Harmonia Mundi "Century" series that also includes music of the Antique, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and modern eras.

The album reviewed here covers five areas of the Middle Ages. The first is the music of the troubadours of Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Troubadours were, as the booklet explains, the "first known representatives of lyric poetry which can be described as secular (that is, non religious) and more specifically as courtly." Today, we tend to think of troubadours as wandering minstrels or singers, but now we know they were more than that, at least in the beginning. Rene Clemencic and his Clemencic Consort, aided by soprano Pilar Figueras, perform three songs of the troubadours to start the program. While the tunes aren't exactly showstoppers, they do give us a feeling for the age, and the singing is splendid.

The next section of the album covers "The art of the Trouveres," who sort of took up where the troubadours left off, this time in Northern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Here we find seven song selections done by Andrew Lawrence-King and the Harp Consort, aided by the vocals of Stephen Harrold, Julian Podger, Ian Honeyman, Paul Hillier, and the Theatre of Voices. I found this selection of tunes somewhat hit-and-miss, but there is no denying the artistry involved.

The third segment of the album was my favorite, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, canticles (poems or songs of praise) from Spain in the 13th century, mostly dedicated to the King of Castille, Alfonso X the Wise. Here, the Dufay Collective present primarily instrumental music, and it's lively and engaging, practically stealing the show.

The next section of the program involves the music of the 13th, 14th, and 15th-century German minnesingers (singers of love songs). Again, we get more courtly songs of romance, performed by Mary Springfels and the Newberry Consort, with help from Drew Minter, David Douglass, and Kevin Mason. It's all quite lovely, actually, if a bit heavy.

The program concludes with two selections from the Carmina Burana. No, not the one by Carl Orff; that came much later, with Orff finding his material in the original Carmina Burana of the 13th century, a manuscript discovered in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuren. While I can't say I liked the music much, the Clemencic Consort, who opened the album, close it as well as one could expect.

The sound, which comes from several previously released Harmonia Mundi recordings bearing publication dates between 2003 and 2005, is uniformly excellent. Whether the ensembles are relatively large or simply duets, the sonics treat them with clarity and cleanness, featuring a wide stereo spread when necessary and a wonderful sense of presence. The acoustics are often quite resonant, providing a pleasant and realistic ambient bloom on the music. Dynamics are strong and pointed, and midrange transparency is top notch without adding any brightness or edge in the process. When the sound needs depth, we get depth; when it needs a quick transient response, we get a quick transient response; and when voices need a natural accuracy, we get a natural accuracy. Very nice.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa