Neo-Medieval: Medieval Improvisations for a Postmodern Age
(Dorian, 1997)

The title of early music ensemble Hesperus's Neo-Medieval: Medieval Improvisations for a Postmodern Age may well divide would-be listeners into two camps: those immediately intrigued by the name and its implications about historicity and intellectualism and what "neo-medieval" might be, and those who find the whole idea pretentious, fussily academic and pointless.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Neo-Medieval is over an hour of lively and enjoyable instrumental music -- paired with intellectual yet intelligible liner notes for those interested in its more theoretical aspects. The Dorian label, often filed under classical music, has a strong record of putting out early music collections that are impressively researched, arranged and played. This one is no exception. Fans of more liberal interpretations of medieval music -- a la Dead Can Dance and the Mediaeval Baebes -- may be disappointed in the lack of overt anachronisms and concessions to modern taste: despite its title, to anyone possessing a less than comprehensive knowledge of early European music, Neo-Medieval sounds thoroughly -- and pleasantly -- medieval.

That is, of course, part of the point of the name: no one alive today can know what medieval music really sounded like, so all reconstructions are inevitably postmodern productions based on a contemporary understanding of the medieval period and tempered by contemporary tastes. The Hesperus ensemble goes a little further by consciously incorporating improvisation -- itself a medieval tradition -- with medieval melodies, and by including untraditional instruments such as the brass-strung Arabic saz and the Turkish kamenj. No worries if you don't have a clue what those might be, or how they might sound, or indeed, what sounds "authentic" or not in medieval music. It's still a thoroughly pleasant and well-put-together CD, though perhaps not as revolutionary or experimental as might be expected -- at least for a lay listener.

The 22 instrumental tracks are taken from 13th- and 14th-century European melodies, mostly anonymous, and range from lively dance tunes to religious, originally vocal pieces. Primary instruments include the lute, recorder, vielle and hammered dulcimer. The CD opens with the bright, metallic sounds of the dulcimer on "Estampie," a 14th-century English dance piece. No one instrument or tone dominates throughout the CD; "Ay, mi!" as might be expected is a mournful, spare recorder melody, where "Istampita Manfredina" is a smartly paced dance that ends in a frenzy of strings and percussion. Solo recorders on "Kyrie Cuthberte" and "Una Panthera" cleverly imitate vocal polyphony, though it is hard not to feel that the occasional inclusion of actual human voices would have made Neo-Medieval a richer and more compelling recording. The CD ends on a high note with two of its most distinctive tracks: "Gracieusette," a simple, repetitive tune that builds up splendidly and leads straight into the sunny, reel-like "Saltarello." No tracks are immediate standouts, but the whole makes for an evocatively medieval 73 minutes of music from musicians who are audibly talented and enthusiastic about what they play.

Although not as dramatic as other neo-medieval recordings like Signum's Estampie or the very neo-medieval CDs of the Baebes, Neo-Medieval is distinguished by a subtle but pervasive sense of quality, good taste and intelligence. It works equally well as an introduction to the possibilities of early music, as a soundtrack to reading a favorite neo-medieval novel or even as dance music -- provided you know how to dance the saltarello!

by Jennifer Mo
10 March 2007

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