This disc, the fourth in a Harmonia Mundi-label series covering the entire history of music, brings together the various traditions of medieval secular song in a simple, easy-to-understand package. No one else has quite managed to do this on a single disc before, and with a nearly thousand-year-old repertoire such a thing is especially valuable. The thick cardboard package is loaded with background information (the map of Europe's political divisions around the year 1200 is almost worth the price of the disc by itself), and a paper booklet, as with other releases in this series, takes a question-and-answer approach ("What is the difference between troubadours and trouvères?") to clarifying major issues. The disc introduces no fewer than five types of medieval song: troubadour and trouvère songs from southern and northern France, respectively, the Cantigas de Santa María from Spain, the songs of the Minnesänger from the lands of the Holy Roman Empire in what is now Germany, and the original Carmina Burana songs on which Carl Orff based his splashy hit of the 1930s. The listener gets, as well, a good idea of the different ways performers go about realizing the rather sketchy notation in which these songs have come down to us: the performances are drawn from earlier recordings by the Clemencic Consort, the Theatre of Voices with Andrew Lawrence-King, the Dufay Collective, and the Newberry Consort -- ranging from reedy and severe to ethereal and lyrical.
The only complaint with this disc is a major one: in such word-based repertoires, the omission of texts is a big hole. The disc is subtitled "The Time of Courtly Love," and the idea of courtly love meant a lot of different things to different people -- a variety essential to understanding music of this era. The listener in search of a complete introduction to medieval song might try purchasing this disc in combination with others that explore specific repertories in more depth -- Sequentia's discs covering the songs of the trouvères, or those of Oswald von Wolkenstein, say.