OSWALD VON WOLKENSTEIN: Songs of Myself – Andreas Scholl, countertenor, baritone / Shield of Harmony – Harmonia mundi  HMC 902051, 80:53 *****:

Late-medieval Tyrolean poet and composer Oswald von Wolkenstein (c. 1376-1445) had so many competing employments and interests in his life that it’s a wonder he found time for artistic endeavor. As a young boy he served as squire to a knight-errant (or so the story goes) and thus began a series of astounding travels that continued when he entered the diplomatic service of a series of nobles including Sigismund, king of Hungary and of the Holy Roman Empire, about whom more later. Oswald traveled all over the known world and much of the little-known world, too–to England, Spain, Hungary, Crete, Lithuania, Turkey, the Holy Land, and even Georgia. His travels are the subject of perhaps his most famous composition, Es fügt sich (“It Came About”).

As supporter of Sigismund (the politics of the period is frustratingly complicated; I won’t try to dope it out for you here), Oswald fell victim to a number of political dust-ups that were both costly and potentially dangerous, necessitating his hitting the road again. And again. Yet Oswald still found time to compose over 130 songs and, just as remarkably, to ensure his posterity by commissioning the Augustine monastery at Neustift to anthologize his works, which exist in three well-preserved manuscripts, two of which Oswald authorized.

“Songs of Myself” is thus an apt name for this recording, even more so since, like Walt Whitman, Oswald’s favorite subject was himself: his adventures, his loves, his cosmology and belief system. Yet there is variety among these works, some being simple monophonic songs in the tradition of the troubadours, some polyphonic works, such as Fröhlich zärtlich (“Happily, Softly”) arranged from the canon of melodists such as Gilles Binchois, with whom Oswald would have become familiar during his diplomatic service in France. One of the most attractive pieces is what is supposed to be an original polyphonic work, the May song Des himels trone (“From Heaven’s Throne”), with its extensive imitation of bird calls.

Even more variety comes from the purely instrumental pieces, like the anonymous Parlamento, that Shield of Harmony plays to make this album a well-rounded entertainment. They play with style and élan, harpist Kathleen Dineen adding her light, sweet soprano to the polyphonic love song Kom, liebster man (“Come, Beloved Man”) among others. But mostly this is countertenor Andreas Scholl’s show. His nimble, expressive voice shapes and caresses these old songs to vibrant life. When he ratchets down his voice to baritone for the mock love song Wes mich mein buhl (“What Presents My Beloved Gave Me”), it comes as a smile-inducing surprise.

Taking their cue from Oswald’s own words (he often speaks of fiddles, apparently), Shield of Harmony accompanies Scholl on stringed instruments: Gothic harp; lute; vielle; dulce melos (an ancient version of the hammered dulcimer); a small lute known as the quinterne; and the nyckleharpa, a violin-like instrument of Swedish origin related to the hurdy gurdy. It has wooden keys attached to tangents that change the pitch of the strings when the keys are depressed. This odd little consort produces some pleasing colorful sounds.

“Songs of Myself” is a first-class production in every way, including the packaging, Harmonia mundi’s typical tri-fold cardboard album that accommodates a big nicely printed booklet with notes in three languages, texts in two. Great sound as well. This gets my highest recommendation.

-Lee Passarella