Medieval Perspectives: Budget recordings

If we select only budget recordings, it is not really possible to survey medieval repertory as thoroughly, and with as much interpretive variety, as in our basic overview. However, budget classical recordings have done well of late, and in many cases, the medieval recordings available are of quality comparable to those at full price. Repertory coverage continues to increase, such that this survey becomes an increasingly sensible approximation.

It is tempting to list recordings in repertory order, and to survey medieval music on that basis. However, especially with the changing landscape of budget catalogs, it becomes more sensible to arrange the survey first according to the provenance of the recording, and then to make remarks on repertory.

When it comes to true budget recordings, meaning original productions in their first release, Naxos is the dominant label and the Ensemble Unicorn is the group with the most available budget recordings of medieval repertory.

A central recording in their discography, as well as with respect to the medieval repertory:

Alfonso X El Sabio: Cantigas de Santa Maria
Ensemble Unicorn
Naxos 8.553133

The Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled in Spain, are among the largest sources of medieval song. Beyond this citation, Ensemble Unicorn has several other recordings on Naxos which illustrate other secular portions of the medieval repertory. Their recordings tend to be lively, sometimes with rather idiosyncratic interpretive decisions. In that sense, they are always artistic, and have their own distinct fans. The remainder can be referenced from the link above.

Perhaps coincidentally, Ensemble Unicorn is made up primarily of students of medieval music "legend" René Clemencic, and it is Clemencic who best represents medieval music on Naxos' main competitor, Arte Nova by BMG. Arte Nova is another budget label which has attempted a broad catalog in sometimes thought-provoking recordings. (However, they seem to have ceased selling directly in the United States.)

With regard to the medieval repertory, the most significant of Clemencic's budget recordings is:

Machaut: La Messe de Nostre Dame
Clemencic Consort / Ensemble Nova / Polifonica Lucchese e Capella Santa Cecilia - René Clemencic
Arte Nova 85289

As opposed to the monophonic orientation of Ensemble Unicorn's recordings, the central item above is polyphonic music in Latin. Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) is perhaps the most significant composer of the medieval era, making the above disc a central element of the present discography. Beyond the mass, probably the single most famous piece of medieval music, the program illustrates a variety of sacred & secular forms.

Arte Nova seems to be making a commitment to the medieval repertory. Releases by other prominent ensembles include:

Minnesänger, Troubadours, Trouvères
Ensemble Perceval - Katia Caré & Guy Robert
Arte Nova 58968
Oswald von Wolkenstein and his Italian contemporaries
Les Menestrels
Arte Nova 58969

The first recording, again devoted to the monophonic secular repertory, also features performers well-known in full-priced recordings, the Ensemble Perceval. The second recording, including Ars Nova polyphony, is the first CD from an ensemble with a distinguished discography on LP.

Returning to Naxos, which certainly has the largest budget catalog, aside from the other Ensemble Unicorn selections, there are many worthwhile medieval repertory items by different groups. A selection:

Adorate Deum
Gregorian Chant from the Proper of the Mass
Nova Schola Gregoriana - Alberto Turco
Naxos 8.550711
Hildegard: Heavenly Revelations
Oxford Camerata - Jeremy Summerly
Naxos 8.550998
Dufay: Missa L'Homme armé
Oxford Camerata - Jeremy Summerly
Naxos 8.553087
Sephardic Romances
Traditional Jewish Music from Spain
Ensemble Accentus - Thomas Wimmer
Naxos 8.553617
Ockeghem: Requiem / Missa Prolationum
Musica Ficta - Bo Holten
Naxos 8.554260

The group with the most early music recordings on Naxos is the Oxford Camerata. Although most of their discs are of Renaissance polyphony, they have also issued some significant medieval programs. Their style contrasts with that of Ensemble Unicorn: It is an all vocal, totally standard interpretation lacking idiosyncrasy, perhaps even bland in a stereotypical "budget" way. However, the recordings mentioned above allow one to sample music of two other famous medieval composers, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), and Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), at a budget price.

The first item above is one of Naxos' Gregorian chant recordings by noted Italian specialist Alberto Turco, whose chant interpretations frequently appear in support of polyphony on full-price recordings. The recording of music by Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497) is one of several by Danish conductor Bo Holten, another interpreter to have a distinctive view of the fifteenth century idiom. Finally, the Sephardic recital of Ensemble Accentus is only loosely related to medieval music as it is usually conceived (due to the oral nature of the Jewish diaspora repertory), but is nonetheless a notable Naxos issue. The performance style returns to that of Ensemble Unicorn.

The most recent item to be added to this list is another Naxos recording, this time devoted to the highly influential Notre Dame style of polyphony, and the first development of the the 3- and 4-voice harmony:

Léonin / Pérotin: Sacred Music from Notre-Dame Cathedral
Tonus Peregrinus - Antony Pitts
Naxos 8.557340

Little is known of Perotin (fl.c.1200), but his major works are some of the most impressive milestones of the Ars Antiqua era.

Moving ahead a few centuries to repertory of the Dufay era, Clemencic has once again contributed a highly significant budget issue:

Cathedral Sounds - Dunstable
Sacred music of the late English Gothic
Clemencic Consort - René Clemencic
Arte Nova 34055

John Dunstable (c.1390-1453) was one of the central English composers to pave the way for the more modern contrapuntal style of the fifteenth century. Beyond this, Clemencic continues to produce many recordings, on both the budget Arte Nova label and full-priced labels. Both can be referenced from his discography.

For repertory closing the medieval era in the broadest interpretation of the term, and moving clearly into the high Renaissance of the sixteenth century, a more recent recording on Naxos presents a fine overview of the different genres of the period:

The A-La-Mi-Re Manuscripts
Flemish Polyphonic Treasures for Charles V
Josquin / De la Rue / Willaert
Capilla Flamenca
Naxos 8.554744

Although it often contains individual sections of longer works, the performances here are as good as on any mainstream label and feature a glimpse of the high point of the Franco-Flemish style.

Another recording from the same era, devoted to Pierre de la Rue (c.1452-1518), one of the last major composers to work primarily without the printing press, and arguably stylistically one of the last in the medieval idiom:

La Rue: Mass of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin / Easter Mass
Ars Antiqua de Paris - Michel Sanvoisin
Naxos 8.554656

This recording illustrates some of the best large-scale music from what was arguably the high point of Western polyphony, the Franco-Flemish style of c.1500.

Moving decisively into the modern era, the Oxford Camerata has also recorded a program devoted to Josquin Desprez (c.1440/55-1521), perhaps the most important composer in Western music history:

Josquin: Missa L'homme armé
Oxford Camerata - Jeremy Summerly
Naxos 8.553428

This seems to be a perfect place to conclude the survey.

Beyond the true budget recitals, there are also compilation reissues which can serve similar purposes. In this case, variety of repertory and performance need not be an issue, as these sets can be rather inclusive in that sense. Of course, there are also relatively few choices, and availability can sometimes be a bigger problem. Notable medieval compilations which average out to a "budget" price:

Les Très Riches Heures du Moyen-Âge
Soeur Marie Keyrouz / Ensemble Organum / Deller Consort / Clemencic Consort / Anonymous 4 / Hilliard Ensemble / Newberry Consort
Harmonia Mundi 90649/54 (6 CDs)
The Medieval Experience
Choralschola der abtei Müchwarzach / The Early Music Consort of London / Choeur de l'abaye Notre-Dame de Fontgombault / Pro Cantione Antiqua / The London Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble
Archiv 449 082 (4 CDs)

There are of course other compilations, some including more than simply medieval music, and some of dubious merit. The above two can be recommended with some confidence as good surveys.

There are also an increasing number of "2-for-1" disc sets which might be included, although they frequently have prices more in the range of a "mid-price" disc. Of course, allowing that price range would open up several more opportunities, including various multi-headed compilations by such major companies as BMG & EMI.

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Todd M. McComb