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Concert reviews

"The songs of the Nibelungs"
Ensemble Leones
concert: Nov 26, 2016, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

anon: Clausula (instr); Der gźr (instr); Der lintrachen (instr); Ich zōch mir einen valken (Der von Kürenberg); Nibelungenlied (1. Āventiure: Von den Burgonden; Wie Kriemhilde troumete; 3. Āventiure: Wie Hagene von Sīfrit seit; 16. Āventiure: Wie Sīfrit erslagen wart; Wie Kriemhilde trūrete [instr]; 30. Āventiure: Wie Hagen unt Volkźr der schiltwaht pflāgen; 39. Āventiure: Der Nibelunge nōt); Volkźr de videlaere (instr); We ich han ghedacht (Wizlav von Rügen)

Hanna Marti, voice, harp; Marc Lewon, voice, quinterne, carolingian citole; Baptiste Romain, fiddle, crwth, bagpipes

Many years ago the (then) Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht had 'story telling' as one of its themes. It returned several times in following editions. Basically 'story telling' is nothing special. One could argue that a large part of music consists of story telling. Bach's St Matthew Passion is a famous example. Even instrumental music can tell a story. That has become part of our understanding of (early) music since the discovery of the connection between music and speech, which was so eloquently propagated by the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

However, there is a part of the repertoire where this aspect manifests itself in a special way. We have to go back to the time that most people could not write and read. It was the time stories were part of the identity of a group of people, a region or even a village. Stories were passed down from one generation to the other. If nothing is written down such stories have no fixed form. Every story teller can bend the stories, change, omit or add episodes or even a part of the plot. It can hardly surprise that such stories - if they have been preserved until our time - often come in different versions. That is also the case with the Nibelungenlied, in English 'the song of the Nibelungs'. It has come down to us in several manuscripts from as long ago as the 13th century. There are 32 known versions in total which bear witness to the effect of oral tradition. More information can be found on Wikipedia.

That article doesn't pay any attention to music. You also won't find any information about the Nibelungenlied in the English music encyclopedia New Grove. The reason is simple: no music has come down to us. So how could the Ensemble Leones bring excerpts from this story - the complete story would take about 30 hours - when there is no music? If texts were written down they were obviously not meant for reading, considering how few people were able to read. The texts which have come down to us - whether the Nibelungenlied or English medieval poems, for instance - were usually sung or recited in a mixture of speech and singing. It is likely that the story teller or reciter accompanied himself on a plucked (lute or harp) or a string instrument.

The director of the Ensemble Leones, Marc Lewon, states that the reciters used some fixed melody patterns which they could adapt to the text. Therefore the performers decided to use material from the same time for their selection from the Nibelungenlied. They added some other songs which can be connected to elements of the story. They also inserted instrumental pieces, probably partly improvised, either between the adventures in which the Nibelungenlied is divided - there are 39 in total - or between some stanzas within an adventure, to underline a special dramatic moment.

How do you perform such a piece? Obviously no performance can claim to be 'authentic'. We just don't know enough to be sure that a certain approach is like it was at the time. Although much research has been done in regard to the pronunciation of the text it would be wrong to suggest that today's interpreters pronounce the text exactly like the story tellers in the Middle Ages. We also don't know how exactly a story was told. Did the reciter use gestures, like an actor? Some parts were performed that way, but only when the singer was accompanied by a colleague. If a singer accompanies himself - or herself, as in the case of Hanna Marti - it is impossible to emphasize elements in the text with gestures. This already shows that it is probably nearly impossible to keep strictly to what was the most likely way of performance. It seems implausible that more than one person was involved in this sort of story telling. And I certainly don't believe for a second that a woman ever acted as a story teller. I vividly remember performances by Benjamin Bagby - for instance in the Early Music Festival - who acted as a singer all on his own, accompanying himself at the harp.

That doesn't mean that there is no other way of approaching this kind of literature. If one accepts that it is not always possible to stick to the practices of the past - provided we know what those practices were - there was every reason to be happy with the way the extracts from the Nibelungenlied were performed by Hanna Marti, Marc Lewon and Baptiste Romain. One of the main objectives of a performance of this kind of material is that the tension of the story is communicated to the audience. Remember that the text is in Middle High German which means that it is hard to understand without a translation (which fortunately was included in the programme). However, it was my experience that even without following the text during the performance the course of the events came off very well. During the instrumental intervals I read the text and then watched the performers when they were singing and playing. That worked quite well as this gave me the opportunity to listen to them a bit like the audience in early times must have listened to such story tellers.

And eloquent story tellers they turned out to be. When the singers - Marti and Lewon - accompanied themselves, as was mostly the case, they had to rely on things like declamation, accentuation, volume, timing and colouring of the voice to communicate elements in the text. They did so in a most admirable way. The instrumental contributions were also outstanding, from the two singers but also from Baptiste Romain on fiddle, crwth and bagpipes. Some adventures ended with the three artists singing in unison. That seems definitely unhistorical and something I could have done without, especially as they produced here some sounds which seemed to me quite modern rather than medieval.

All in all, this was a most memorable and captivating event. This kind of repertoire is seldom performed and it was most interesting to attend a concert in which the text is in fact the only thing that really matters. It also gave much food for thought about aspects of performance practice and on the ways to bring such old stuff to an audience of the 21st century.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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