Remarks on Recent Recordings

This page concerns the "Early Music" portion of the site. (Although I do not remember specifically myself, if I trust what I see online, it appears that this feature began in April 2000, then in a monthly digest format.)

As of October 2014, I will be making comments here on an intermittent, not on a strictly monthly basis. Accordingly, entries will be dated more precisely than by their month.

As always, comments here are what I choose to note about a release, and do not follow a strict format. Only recordings about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say will be mentioned in this space.

Comments are in reverse chronological order, i.e. newest first.


Another recent release to discuss is The Orlando Consort's second recording devoted to Compère, titled simply Loyset Compère, on Hyperion. I was a bit surprised by this release, because it came in the midst of their Machaut series, and so seems like a change to rather different material. Moreover, of the 79 original recordings we have listed in our Compère discography, there are actually two devoted entirely (or over half) to Compère, and both are by the Orlando Consort, with this second album joining the first twenty years later. (Two of four singers are in common between the two recordings.) Indeed, there are three other Orlando Consort albums with tracks by Compère, so it is probably safe to call them by far his biggest fans in the recording industry. Here, in keeping with their Machaut series, the focus is on chansons — plus a (lengthy) Magnificat, a (short & questionable) motet, & a motet-chanson. I've been calling (perhaps tediously, at this point) for more attention to chansons from the second half of the fifteenth century, so this is a welcome program. I suppose it's all a matter of fashion, but it continues to amaze me how dated the (relatively few) available programs of some of this secular material are at this point, and of course, Compère's secular music had never received such concentrated attention at all. (For instance, the Chansonnier Cordiforme set by the Consort of Musicke is from 1979!) Anyway, hopefully more will continue to appear.

Sadly, this recorded production seems to follow almost on cue from my previous, opposite comments about Beauty Farm: Here, the recorded sound is quite distant & blunted, such that whereas the top line can still be penetrating, it is often difficult to hear the lower voices. Note that this is not an issue with the Orlando Consort per se, as e.g. their Busnois disc, which also includes some chansons (and is rather more stiff in interpreting them than this more recent performance), does not suffer from this problem. There, on Harmonia Mundi, the voices are all relatively equally audible. In retrospect, this is an issue on their Machaut recordings (for Hyperion) as well, particularly the first. However, in the case of Compère, it is the lower/middle voices that generate much of the motivic structure, and include so many of the original details. So it's a bigger problem here, and detracts from the otherwise fine one-to-a-part all-male vocal conception.

That said, the liner notes continue a reappraisal of Compère's historical position, now crediting him as a major developer of the more motivic style. He's also seen (now) as an older contemporary of Agricola, the two writing the last innovative music in the formes fixes, which Compère apparently goes on to abandon (according to what the chronology seems to suggest). I would add a comparison to Caron's songs here, which are from a similar era, but demonstrate different (mostly temporal) innovations. (The older layer of Compère's songs might also be compared to the two surviving songs by Regis, who was older still. The newer layer involves even the frottola & other catchy material, anticipating the later Parisian chanson. This latter sort of material is not my favorite, however.) This transitional era thus produced a lot of intriguing & innovative material, before chanson styles were standardized again, perhaps most spectacularly in the masterful songs of La Rue, which were by then entirely different in style from those of e.g. Dufay, whose echo one can hear in early Compère. (Although The Sound and the Fury's recording of chansons on disc three of their Caron set is quite welcome, it is not their best interpretive work: The music comes off somewhat disjointed.)

Despite my concerns about the recorded sound (or mixing or mastering or whatever is precisely the issue), which is indeed quite lamentable for this specific material, this album was added to my personal list.

25 August 2015

What appears to be the debut of a new all-male vocal ensemble called Beauty Farm has been released by the Fra Bernardo label, a double album of Gombert motets. As I wrote in adding it to my personal list, the interpretation is revelatory.

I don't know if it was a conscious choice for Beauty Farm to start with similar repertory to The Sound and the Fury's first two albums, but it's impossible not to compare, and indeed to reflect on ten years of recordings from The Sound and the Fury: Their first album, devoted to Gombert, was recorded in 2005. The second album, from 2006, was also devoted to Gombert, and although I liked those albums, and added them to my recommendations fairly promptly at the time, of course I had no idea that their discography would otherwise come to feature earlier music — with the exception of a third Gombert album from 2008 — and indeed feature several recordings of either iconic fifteenth century masterpieces, or previously neglected repertory (and sometimes both at once). The first two Gombert albums, as well as their first Ockeghem recording, which didn't make much impression on me, included a female soprano, but they were soon to abandon that practice, including on their third Gombert disc. This change facilitated their focus on tuning according to the middle lines of the textures, rather than the "angelic" top-down style that became so characteristic of English interpretations. (Quite possibly, the gender of the performers isn't important to this outcome in any technical sense, but it does seem to have an effect, if only in the matter of subsequent interpretive choices.) In any case, Beauty Farm seems to be on the same page as The Sound and the Fury regarding these interpretive developments (and includes bass Joachim Höchbauer in common), and indeed they produce even more clarity within the style: There is less resonance to the recording, hence less background "buzz," and so the listener is better able to follow the interior interplay. The lines sound more independent, with greater sonic space in which to operate, while their dependencies (particularly in motivating each other forward) are also set in sharper relief. It's an impressive result, and I saw something on Beauty Farm's site about plans to record Ockeghem & Barbireau. So that could be exciting. Maybe they intend to focus mostly on earlier music too?

Regarding Gombert himself, although he is generally described as "neglected," his discography is actually rather substantial at this point. I place him at more or less the end of the medieval style, or as one might say at this point, in a small post-medieval bubble. In other words, he follows La Rue & Josquin, etc., and doesn't turn to the simpler Renaissance harmonies. Some writers call his "the lost generation" of Franco-Flemish polyphony, musicians working in the wake of the European conquests in the Americas & elsewhere, i.e. in a very changed world, but retaining some of the previous understanding & attitude. With the next generation, presumptively not "lost," of Palestrina etc., we are more thoroughly into what I call (from this medieval perspective) modern music, i.e. music of the modern age, post-Council of Trent, etc. This generation starts to fall outside of my own interests (although in writing this, I start to think that perhaps I should look/listen over Lassus's large output one more time, as some writers consider him to be the last of the Franco-Flemish polyphonists). Gombert is specifically associated with Charles V, and the emperor did attempt to forbid abusive behavior toward native Americans, without much success. Those were difficult times, and Gombert's life had its own famous difficulties. In any case, he was also able to write some amazing music, developing & extending the polyphonic invention of the previous generation. After that, the demand for simpler music carried the day.

Beauty Farm focuses on the motets, which have generally been considered (at least since Reese) to be Gombert's best work. We seem to have had a phase, followed also by The Sound and the Fury, in which it became obligatory to include a mass cycle in any recording of Franco-Flemish polyphony. Although there are many amazing mass cycles, and it's great to have them recorded, I'll be glad for the passing of this obligation. The motets of the era are often every bit as brilliant, and their shorter length means more variety on an album. And with a double album, of course that variety is even more. Most of these motets were recorded by The Sound and the Fury as well, but here they are sung in a new edition by Jorge Martín, who surely deserves much credit for this release. Martín, quoting writers of the sixteenth century (hardly for the first time), describes Gombert's use of dissonance as "unprecedented." Some of the technical features of this music really are stunning, but I don't want to dwell on that, because the result is just so affectively compelling. This is indeed brilliant music, brilliantly executed for our ears today. It's nice to be reminded that the Europe of the sixteenth century could manage more, if only in small & paradoxical niches, than vomiting violence & death across the world.

23 August 2015

Please excuse my two months delay in discussing it, as I had various other commitments intervening, but Phantasm continues their fine series of English consort music with their second album in a row devoted to William Lawes, this one oriented on the massive set, The Royal Consort. They perform the four viol & theorbo version, and supplement it with the remaining sets to the organ that might have otherwise fit on their previous album (plus a small miscellany). The liner notes are extensive, describing various details of the individual pieces and their allusions. Phantasm continues to develop their interpretive style, and indeed this album is very compelling, and added to my personal list. I had not really taken to these pieces previously, but those were other interpretations. Here the strange dances, with their irregular beats and sometimes humorous or magical implications, really come to life. This might not be practical dance music, but the physical references remain tangible. The Royal Consort is the height of a particular style, at least in the dance idiom, soon to be wiped away by the English Civil War & puritanism. The more rational style of the Restoration is simply not the same. This is unique music, even within Lawes' extensive output.

14 July 2015

Diabolus in Musica might be the ensemble that has released the most albums, over the longest span of time, devoted to Notre Dame polyphony. I am not going to attempt to quantify that statement in detail or assess some kind of "winner" in this arena, but I do want to set a context for their latest Notre Dame oriented release. The other piece of context is that it was actually a 2014 release, but only recently, finally, appeared in this country. So, now I have heard it, and that makes commenting very much easier, to say the least.

The program, titled with rather too ubiquitous a term — Sanctus — to search for readily, continues the recent trend in this repertory, more broad than with Diabolus in Musica alone, for more expansive performances of fewer pieces. The downside is less different music on an album, but the less hurried character of the performances provides for much more satisfying individual tracks. (Whether this is the result of the well-known process of — ironically — "sanctification" of classical repertory, i.e. increasing stature leading to slower performances, or is more historically based, I'm not sure. It does seem to fit the music well.) The ensemble continues to feature (contemporary) tenor voices & lower in this repertory, a choice I also enjoy. Their execution of some of the multi-voice cadential ornaments is superb, as is the rest of the interpretation, and I've promptly added this album to my personal list. (It was four and a half years since I last made a change to that particular sub-list, which seems like a long time!)

I don't really have anything new to say about the significance of this repertory per se. Clearly it is a particular historical apex, and continues to receive at least moderate attention on recording.

Hopefully some other items of high interest will appear here before too long, but I have nothing specific on the horizon in this properly medieval domain.

22 June 2015

I had previously heard of neither the label nor the ensemble, but the recording of Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé by Ensemble Nusmido is quite an entry into the repertory. The ensemble consists of former students of Rebecca Stewart singing one to a part, and also playing the instruments on the instrumental tracks. Stewart's chant-based approach included numerous insights, and indeed her legacy was recently acknowledged here with (her former ensemble) Cappella Pratensis's recording of Josquin's Missa Ave maris stella. With this new ensemble, however, the rather rhythmic underpinning of the chants on that album from last year is replaced by a rhetorical sweep that allows Ockeghem's lines to spin off in all directions. Although regular readers might recall that I've never thought that highly of his Missa L'homme armé, the rhetorical sweep of the present interpretation lends an entirely new perspective to the music, such that its open-ended quality seems to fit the topic in exemplary fashion, probing the nature of war, arms, etc. Although the ensemble downplays the significance of a technical approach in the notes, this sense of form is taken (at least in part) from their determination to sing from original notation, gathered around the manuscript, as well as a resulting emphasis on tonal alignment in the middle voices over a top-down (external) hierarchy — an approach to tuning for which I've praised The Sound and the Fury in the past. The unusual (31-beat) rhythm of the theme is thus able to drive diverging lines in what otherwise seems to be a straightforward cantus firmus setting: The seeming rigidity of the cycle, enforced in previous interpretations, thus melts away into meditative indeterminacy. (And let us not forget that some accounts consider Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé to have been of special historical importance, at least within his output. Unfortunately, we might never know the exact chronology of these cycles, although the earlier provenance of Dufay's has recently been reasserted, including by Cantica Symphonia's recording.) Beyond such success with a piece I can only now describe as having been enigmatic, Ensemble Nusmido's performance of Busnoys' In hydraulis (on winds, with bell as hammer) is simply amazing: I feel as though I'm also really hearing it for the first time. Pairing it with Ockeghem's response to Busnoys, the puzzle canon Ut heremita solus (a work that seems to have particularly attracted wind performances already), makes for a brilliant sequence, and Agricola's famous Cecus is enjoyable here on winds as well. Finally, closing with maybe-Morton's Il sera par vous setting of the L'homme armé theme, in which the voices imitate the strum of strings, shows yet another facet of ensemble technique. I was very pleasantly surprised by all of this, and so the album was added to my personal list. After such a debut, what will this ensemble possibly do next?

7 April 2015

Ensemble Syntagma has released a mediabook devoted to Lescurel, including an extensive essay on the poetry & rhetoric of his Dit enté, Gracïeux temps. The emphasis on French poetry per se thus marks something of a change for the ensemble, although I'm told that they already intend another mediabook dealing with other 13th or 14th century French poetic repertory. Besides providing an extensive discussion of the intellectual history behind Lescurel's use of poetic form & rhetorical imagery, the notes call into question some commonplaces of his biography, conclusions I had previously accepted without much thought: They argue that the identification of this Lescurel with someone hanged in 1304 is incorrect, for instance, and that the only known manuscript of his music — also containing the Roman de Fauvel — was most likely written in 1316, perhaps by Lescurel himself. Identification of Lescurel with the trouvère generation (an identification I've followed here, calling him perhaps the last of the trouvères) was already well-established with Sequentia's recording in 1982, and continues with that of Ensemble Gilles Binchois in 1991, even if the latter does emphasize Lescurel's single surviving polyphonic piece. However, Ensemble Syntagma emphasizes the new styles Lescurel adopted via musical notation, and especially with his own achievements in poetry, thereby identifying him stylistically more with the 14th century than the 13th. In some sense, anything to do with periodization is academic, but such an orientation does allow an amazing analysis of Lescurel's Dit, placing it more carefully in its precise historical circumstances. Lescurel's achievement thus includes the sort of spontaneous formal creation within his writing that e.g. Machaut was only able to follow (rather than continuing to innovate). My emphasis here is on music & sound, though, and not poetry per se, even if there is important overlap. Within that orientation, although it's remarkable that it's been over 20 & 30 years since the earlier prominent Lescurel albums, the present mediabook's emphasis on the Dit makes for relatively few musical pieces (as compared with e.g. Ensemble Gilles Binchois' program). The songs included are strikingly performed, however, with a real vibrance gained over this period (and partly, no doubt, due to newer recording equipment). The notes also remind us that the single manuscript of Lescurel's music is alphabetical and cuts off at G, so it's likely that much has been lost. I'm actually reminded of e.g. Alla Francesca's recent Thibaut de Champagne program, which has a similarly striking vibrance, as well as some dramatic recitation. (Thibaut would have already been dead a few decades by the time Lescurel was born, however.) In that sense, I've already endorsed the sorts of sound & voice effects found in the Dit performance, even if dramatic tropes aren't necessarily my main interest. In any case, the mediabook is very successful at its intent, illuminating the various subtle relationships within the Dit, together with its historical context, including by surrounding it with some of Lescurel's most appealing songs. I consider poetic analysis of this sort to be invaluable, and indeed I believe that far more people should learn medieval rhetoric in the way it's presented here: Hopefully this work will lead to increased attention to the more musical side of the repertory, too.

6 April 2015

The Orlando Consort has released The Dart of Love, the second volume of their Machaut Edition for Hyperion. So that project appears to be moving along. Although I don't share the obsession that some (particularly in England) appear to have with all-vocal performances, the resulting consistency of approach & sonority does have something to offer for a complete edition. I'm not sure how well the consistent timbres will appeal to the general listener over many hours of the ultimate result, and it continues to be audibly clear that some lines would be more idiomatic on strings, but I find the exercise worthwhile. That said, as the timbre comment suggests, the performances can also be a bit distant & low in energy sometimes. However, they do reward attention, and the two first recordings (both two voice ballades) have some intriguing melodic twists. One step this program takes, at least in the liner notes (by Anne Stone), is to dig into the chronology of Machaut's music, and how some of his songs relate to other songs of his era. This is a valuable step, as to this point, Machaut's music has usually been treated monolithically, perhaps broken down according to particular publication or by genre. The former approach does imply a particular point in time for a program, at least (although I don't know that anyone has studied possible recycling of material), but hasn't supported explicit exploration of the relation between the music and what comes before. (Even these notes make no mention of e.g. the virelai's hybrid cultural roots.) This is a welcome development, and the inclusion of some of the music that directly influenced Machaut has the potential to make this "edition" more interesting than I might have anticipated. In any case, I've added this item to the existing entry on my personal list, and look forward to future volumes. How many years do they intend to take? There are potential positives both to going quickly & going slowly, but I do want to note that the present pace suggests approximately a decade long project.

22 February 2015

I've enjoyed The Spirit of Gambo's Jenkins discs: It's good to hear different perspectives on this music beyond the English consort ensembles, it's good to hear people pushing forward with interpretive ideas, and more specifically, I find this group's approach to both the instruments (by which I mean making them, mechanically, etc.) & playing together to be excellent & fitting for the music. So receiving their new album devoted to Tye was very welcome. In this case, they expand on their quartet lineup (as the vast majority of the music is in 5 parts), and the music is also almost a century older: These might be reasons for concern, but I found their Tye album quite enjoyable too. The Savall album was recorded over 25 years ago, which is kind of difficult to believe somehow. (Spirit of Gambo's was released last year, but for some reason, I don't see these right away.) It did succeed in attracting me to this music, but I always found it a bit fussy, and never entirely satisfying, so a new album has been welcome, and was added to my personal list. The other piece of this discussion, which I mention in that entry, is why Tye? How or why was he the guy to write this series of In Nomine works — an extended series of 21 variations, perhaps to be compared with the Goldbergs or Diabellis in the world of keyboard music? Not too much is known of Tye (c.1505-c.1573), but this record does note that he received doctorates from both Cambridge & Oxford, a degree that was not typical of musicians in his era. His political associations seem somewhat problematic to me, but I guess it was a symptom of the "free thinking" (that freedom could somehow involve restriction is nothing new, but the Puritans — whom Tye's benefactor seems to also reject, in anticipation, as too extreme — certainly put the icing on that cake) of the time. In any case, and given what appear to be family references & such in the variations, it seems that they were written (or at least conceived) over a number of years. I've not been as enthusiastic about the broader English repertory of this specific era as some people, but it was still a time of not only great change, but change that played a significant role in shaping subsequent centuries around the world. For whatever reason (and perhaps it's mostly a matter of access), Tye, via these pieces, is one of its iconic musical figures, in this case working within the instrumental idiom. I've never found his choral music to be as compelling, presumably because of its more public character. The consort music continues to be relatively singular, given its scope, something to be matched by other composers only decades later.

I should also note the new Jenkins Quartets album from Alberto Rasi & Accademia Strumentale Italiana, recorded a full five years after The Spirit of Gambo's first (which still seems very recent to me). I enjoyed many of Rasi's releases from several (or more) years ago, but had not noticed anything from him recently. It's interesting that his group is back (to releasing international albums) and calling itself a viol consort. This album didn't do much to dislodge my admiration for The Spirit of Gambo's Jenkins quartet albums, but I look forward to future releases from this newly rededicated ensemble.

23 January 2015

In August, when discussing Alla Francesca's previous album devoted to troubadours, I openly wondered where future productions would turn for repertory. Already we have an answer from Alla Francesca themselves in their album devoted to Sephardic-trouvère connections: Trouvère melodies & interpretive techniques are used with Jewish texts (whether in Hebrew, or only thematically). This album was actually prompted by non-medievalist forces documenting Jews in France, and so I'm sure that project was happy to be able to access Alla Francesca's expertise. Juifs et Trouvères is an enjoyable album, although as the forgoing suggests, I'm not sure how significant it is from a musical perspective. It makes for more of a speculative accompaniment to other projects, and perhaps demands a multimedia presentation.

15 January 2015

Longtime readers will know that wide-ranging programs are usually not my favorites, but I thought I should make a note of Argentum et aurum by Ensemble Leones. (Of course, this ensemble has also released other recent programs, in particular centering on instrumental music of the great Franco-Flemish composers, that have very much appealed.) In this case, the impetus was a research study on the music being performed in the vicinity of Vienna during the early Habsburg period. The notable aspect is the fine interpretive job that Leones do with such a broad range of repertory, both chronologically & stylistically: Very vivid, with contrasts. The album will probably appeal to a wider audience with its variety.

5 January 2015

I had previously noted anticipation for Graindelavoix's third & final release in their series around Villard de Honnecourt, Motets. This is the only album in the trilogy that focuses on polyphony, so that makes it of more general interest to me, and indeed the Ars Antiqua motet can be especially fascinating. Motets comes from the same recording sessions, summer of 2010, as the other albums in the Villard series, and so it seems natural to wonder what Graindelavoix is doing now. (Their most recently recorded album is actually Cesena from 2011.) Are they even still active?

In any case, Motets continues the emphasis on "repertory in motion" — i.e., these aren't the most exceptional works, or even especially original for the time, but they do represent the way the broader repertory was articulated at a particular time & place. As such, the program illustrates more of the "in progress" potential of the Ars Antiqua motet than it does any point of arrival or consummation. (Already we had Clemencic demonstrating the layers of creation in the motet repertory, although his program uses a masterpiece for each illustration.) In that sense, its value as an album becomes exemplary of something beyond itself: The situation is not unlike my attempt to list favorite albums for improvisatory music, where the condition of listening to the album multiple times is radically different from the condition of its production. My "snapshot" of favorite improvisatory albums is thus immediately a distortion. We can say the same about medieval music albums, especially of the Ars Antiqua, since the day to day affair of music was of a totally different character from the formation of a canonical repertory, set in stone not only in a recorded performance, but in writing. It's difficult to keep in mind the exceptional character of almost every medieval album in this regard, not only the unusual character of music being written & surviving, but the unusual character that usually motivates a selection for recording: The vast majority of music surviving from the era is plainchant, after all. In keeping with its emphasis on Villard, it's easy to describe Motets, correspondingly, as an audio sketchbook. As such, its achievement is more in the associated process, and in turn in the sort of thoughts I'm articulating here, than it is in the "final" audio result itself. For one thing, most of these are simple 2-voice sketches, sometimes filled in (in the performance) with other versions from more prominent sources. So the program doesn't fit well into a "favorites" model in the sense I've typically used, i.e. about the music on the album, although as I hope this discussion shows, I find the resulting contextualization of & by this album to be quite interesting & worthwhile.

The conception & notes for Motets are a real tour-de-force of Deleuzian theory: We find not only the "nomadic," articulated both in the person of Villard and in the way musical materials themselves were passed around, but also machinic logic. Indeed, the notes present such a cogent argument for viewing Ars Antiqua motets as machinic assemblages that it's difficult to view them as anything but canonic in this regard. (I find it rather satisfying that such assemblages should come through so clearly in an arena far removed from what Deleuze & Guattari seem to have ever considered.) For one thing, the motets threaded together the sacred & secular in their different voices, operating in different time scales, suturing domains that were considered inherently unreconcilable. This "suture" is necessarily of a fluid character, linked closely to passing affective response. The album thus emphasizes the practical (as with Villard) and non-scholastic character of this music. Speaking for myself, I have long felt resentment toward any discussion that presents this music as of only theoretical interest, not for practical purposes, etc. I didn't necessarily know how to articulate my resistance to this idea, other than to say that I was quite certain I was enjoying the music as music, but here we do have an articulation according to the machinic linkages between the different layers: Different domains can continue in their own way, but they do interact if not intersect, and these kinds of interactions eventually lead to what we would later call motivic logic. (The notes also consider the motets as proto-cinematic machines, given their exploration of time scales, as well as becoming-minor in their incorporation of language. The latter, again, seems like a perfect example, yet presumably not one for the original authors.) The machinic linkages are practical in the sense that they do, in fact, assemble different modes of thought. This is a step, then, in schematizing linkages between different modes, as many different versions of similar material are worked out in affective practice. (It must be emphasized that these pieces explore the way the mind works in many ways. I should also note that, having presented this work as "a step," being locked into a more rigid conception was not already implied, but merely a retrospective assessment.) The conception of the world that emerges in the motet-machine is very different from that of the modern era, and certainly different again from what the modern era has projected onto the medieval era. However, particularly taking up the latter thread (in a kind of unraveling), the schemes here & their assemblage via proto-motif challenge our conception of the creation of modern thought itself. For one, these motets are basically open systems: It's with the modern, i.e. tonality, that we encounter a closed system reterritorialized via inscription in the tonic-dominant space: That world is dictated via container instead of being explored via (multiply) internal motion. (And it's probably worth noting specifically that modernity foreclosed according to transcendental logic, leaving practice as a messy residue. Politically, modernity then levels this very claim against the medieval world.) The notes do not discuss the origins of the instrumental pieces, but they are basically fantasies on some of the secular melodies, dance as another thread of machinic assemblage. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what Schmelzer & Co. went on to explore further in Cesena; we just had to wait a few years to read/hear this intervening step, the step that places the logic itself in sharp relief. So what now?

5 December 2014

I appreciate that Michel Sanvoisin continues to record previously unrecorded La Rue pieces, particularly masses. (I don't necessarily appreciate that it's particularly masses, but that's what he's particularly recording.) His latest album features the Missa Tous les regretz, certainly overdue for a recording. (The Nunca fué pena mayor is also worth hearing as one of La Rue's more distinctive early large-scale works.) The interpretation does show enough to make it clear that the Missa Tous les regretz is indeed one of La Rue's major masterpieces of 4-voice motivic style, but the overall result, including the recorded sound, is just so uneven that it's difficult to recommend for anyone but the specialist. There's something to be said for getting this music onto record, though, so thanks to Sanvoisin for that, and I hope the effort will bring more attention to La Rue's discography.

2 December 2014

I want to acknowledge the final Hilliard Ensemble album here, perhaps as a concession to nostalgia. (I think one could argue that I typically take a rather non-nostalgic approach to this music, at least considering it is by nature historical. Perhaps I delude myself with that remark.) The material, English carols & motets of the mid-15th century, is not of high interest to me, but it is material the ensemble selected as their favorite. I think back to their old recordings of Dufay, La Rue, Josquin, Dunstable, Perotin, and especially Ockeghem. These had a large effect on me in the circa 1990 time frame. Who knows if I would be writing on these topics today if not for the Hilliard Ensemble. What they brought to this music is obvious enough: A sense of vocal ensemble virtuosity, driven by the singers themselves. Whereas the actual sonic result might be rather different, there can be no doubt that a sense of vocal ensemble virtuosity marked the original creation of this music. That's the ensemble's biggest legacy, beyond the performances & recordings themselves. That they continued to be a productive group for around 35 years is also amazing (and that they could announce a "retirement" in an album is also the exception).

27 November 2014

To exhaust my backlog for the moment (while a couple of other potentially intriguing items already appear on the horizon), I turn to music only a few decades older, but in some ways, seemingly of a different world, Dufay's masses of 1453. This is the sixth recording devoted to Dufay by the Cantica Symphonia ensemble, dating back fifteen years. Consequently, although their style incorporating instruments — reflecting Italian practice, as they are an Italian ensemble — is not to the taste of some scholars & audience, it has had a lengthy period to be developed & refined. Indeed, this is their third recording devoted to Dufay's mass music, and the most clear & accomplished to date. It was consequently added to my personal list, where I make some other remarks. This is highly significant music, both from a historical perspective & in turns of "pure" enjoyment (a nonsense concept, ultimately, it must be admitted), and here it receives a very lucid & convincing interpretation. Although someone might prefer a different type of ensemble performing it, it's difficult for me to imagine a reading that uncovers anything more in these rather well-worn masses. In fact, the Binchois Consort recording of the Missa Se la face ay pale, released in 2009, already illustrated that mass rather well. (And it was their own fifth recording devoted to Dufay, and possibly their last?) The present recording doesn't really reveal new details, but it is more forceful, and has the benefit of pairing the Missa L'homme armé, a work that has had a large number of recorded interpretations, none of which I had found all that compelling. So the latter is the main impetus for my preference here. The year 1453, just before the fall of Constantinople, and resulting consummation of the epochal shift in trade routes that had already begun, will always appear as something of a historical apex for Western Europe. Here we have its most celebrated music: Readers from other cultures might want to have a listen.

24 November 2014

Apparently I should have paid a lot more attention to the Huelgas Ensemble recording of Pipelare back in the 90s, considering that the recent Sound and the Fury recording is among the most striking "new" programs I've heard from the era in a while. (Whether the previous program fitting that description is their La Rue or their Caron depends on what "new" means. The La Rue program amazed me, but in some sense I expected it. Of course, making this comparison only underscores how much The Sound and the Fury has done for c.1500 sacred music over the past several years. They are in a league of their own when it comes to introducing previously neglected material.) In fairness to me, not that I deserve any slack, I was not terribly taken with the Huelgas Agricola recording from a few years later, and never have been that taken with Brumel, whose contemporary fame they inaugurated with their Earthquake mass recording at the beginning of the 90s — this marking their main entry into the repertory. The style was & remains kind of muddy, and some of their programs relied on extracts. Moreover, I noted the similarity between Pipelare & La Rue immediately, but at that time, La Rue's discography was a mess (as was c.1500 music in general, with so many problems of ficta & rhythm), and it was difficult to discern Pipelare's relative status — I took him to be a lesser figure with a similar style. I was mistaken on that point, as the new recording amply demonstrates, and the fact that I feel a need to revisit this history of almost twenty years ago underscores just how mistaken I was. (There is also a recording from 1940 on 78rpm, making the current release the third with Pipelare in its title.) I even created a Pipelare discography here at the FAQ, a mere two weeks after stating I wouldn't be adding new resources (a statement I still maintain in principle; I don't mind being contradictory), partly to attempt to correct my error.

In making some adjustments to my activity here, I have yet to fully articulate for myself the distinction between comments on this page and those at my personal list, where this Pipelare set has been added. That page does make a few remarks that I will not try to repeat here. Consequently, beyond those remarks, I'm not sure what else to say here, other than noting the history above. Pipelare's style is quite distinctive & compelling, and his apparent eschewal of prominent positions — he left the only one he had rather quickly for unknown reasons — is perhaps a sign of the changing times. World conquest was underway, the Reformation was brewing, and musical style would soon be standardized over the same period that saw increased oppression not only applied to some unfortunate world cultures, but at home in Europe as well. Soon would come the age of famines & the second serfdom, and freely styled creative music such as Pipelare's would be forgotten, or at least removed from the highest circles of power. It's this shift that marks the end of an era, musically, and why I & others persist in calling it the Golden Age. By way of appendix to that point, perhaps it's worth noting the very different provenances of composers such as Agricola, La Rue, and Pipelare: The latter evidently emerged from the piper's guild to receive a theoretical education. Talent could emerge unexpectedly, and unconnected with consolidating power, an observation I'll simply leave dangling.

23 November 2014

I have begun to lament the relative lack of attention to the Franco-Flemish motet repertory recently, as my frequent calls for recordings of the secular music have started to be heard, apparently. (More could certainly be done.) On the sacred side, although the mass repertory, as the "symphony" of the period, is well worthwhile, and recent recordings, particularly by e.g. The Sound and the Fury, have illuminated & clarified a great deal in this area, it's worth remembering that the motets have been considered at least as important, both at the time & earlier in twentieth century scholarship, with a preference toward mass or motet attributed on the basis of individual composer. For one thing, masses are almost "instrumental" in impetus with their predesignated (pro forma) texts, whereas motets allow for more selection, or even composition of text (as in the chanson). For example, Gustav Reese considered Josquin's motets to be his most distinctive compositions, in large part because of his handling of texts. (And here I don't mean "word painting" in the sense of using the text to mediate musical decoration within a standard modal or tonal scheme, but rather conceive the form itself relative to the text.)

So at this point, we really need more motet recordings from the Golden Age, and The Spy's Choirbook, a double album by Alamire (the ensemble), is a start. This is a rather interesting historical program, derived from an ornate manuscript that Alamire (the scribe) sent to Henry VIII in 1516/7, a collection of motets from some of the leading composers of the period (all anonymous in the manuscript). The interpretation uses a rather large vocal ensemble, sometimes including instruments as well. Consequently, although there is a good overall formal sense for this music, i.e. cadences & tonal relations are articulated clearly with their large-scale structural relations, smaller-scale interactions & motivic development are often obscured. (The handful of all-instrumental performances are actually some of the most compelling in the set, often bringing out more motivic & passing details.) This is more of an issue for some of the motets in the program than others, but personally, I most enjoy the music that has a lot of detailed small-scale interaction to go along with interesting formal progressions. The two opening, paired (stately) pieces are topical, related to conceiving an heir, and although the topicality sets the program, the pieces themselves are rather stiff from a musical perspective. That doesn't set great expectations for the program, but there are highlights: The La Rue & Josquin (possibly including the very striking Tota pulchra es) motets are appealing, for instance, although they immediately call for more detail. (The series on Dulces exuviae is another highlight for those who like to compare.) Regardless, this is easily the most substantial program of motets from the period to appear in quite some time. It's thus well worth hearing.

19 November 2014

I have a series of Franco-Flemish polyphony recordings to discuss, as "release" season seems to be fully underway. This time of year is usually the most active, and once again we are seeing a strong batch of releases. It's good to see there's still life out there when it comes to recording this repertory. I don't take it for granted at this point. I've been slow to write these discussions, preoccupied with other happenings, and I'm not sure how long it will take me to treat the whole batch, but I'll get to it — or at least the part where I have something to say.

Anyway, let me start with perhaps the easiest to discuss: The Brabant Ensemble released a Brumel album. Not coincidentally, this is some of the earliest music they have recorded, if not the earliest, at least judging (quickly) by titles. Brumel, among composers of this period, has generally appealed to listeners (and musicians) who are mostly interested in later music. Stephen Rice's liner notes oblige that orientation, with their frequent implication that this music, being prior to the Council of Trent, is particularly early. Among the major composers of his generation, of course Brumel is known for an emphasis on homophony & rhythm: The same rhythmic figures might repeat in different places in the texture, for instance, perhaps insistently, rather than participate in motivic development. There is imitative writing here, but a lot of "light" chordal writing too, which Rice aptly describes as Italianate. The music can remain relatively close in tone to the plainchant on which it is based, but decorated with harmonies (in a sense, not so unlike hymns of several decades earlier). So that probably summarizes pretty well both why Brumel is popular with some listeners, and relatively unpopular with me (although, as should be obvious, I am listening & writing still). The performance is well-conceived, with a shameless exuberance singing out Brumel's rhythmic figures. It works well, and this ensemble's experience (even if it's mainly with music a few decades later) shows. They clearly interpret & show what makes Brumel Brumel.

Chronology tends not to be very clear for this music, and so when Franco-Flemish pieces (such as mass cycles) from the Golden Age show similarities, it's difficult to know who influenced whom (or indeed if a lost example is involved). So whereas Marbrianus de Orto seems to have been a close contemporary of Brumel, and some of their approach to counterpoint (when Brumel engages in it) sounds similar, it is challenging to order the masses on The Sound and the Fury's De Orto album relative to Brumel's work recorded above. I might suggest the L'homme armé mass was earlier, and the Mi-Mi more contemporaneous. In any case, relative to Brumel is only one aspect of chronology to mention: The De Orto album was actually recorded a month prior to The Sound and the Fury's Ockeghem Mi-Mi album, inverting what is certainly the original order (and perhaps adding some insight to the Ockeghem interpretation). This is also a download-only album, a trend I do not welcome. (A friend helped me hear it, since I don't want proprietary software on my computer.) De Orto's discography was a relatively late addition to the FAQ (prompted by the Cut Circle album, making the current release the second to put De Orto in its title), but this album confirms he belongs, at least among the second tier of his contemporaries, even if for the purpose of discussing influence & chronology. One significant choice for the interpretation of the L'homme armé mass was breaking long (perhaps instrumentally conceived) lines into vocal syllables fitting more with the surrounding texture. Although the Mi-Mi setting uses a variety of plainchant, it does not follow Ockeghem's modal implications, and ends up having some of the same improvisatory feel as the L'homme armé. (One might compare to Agricola, although the two have very different styles.) This is someone with a lot of fluid ideas. Between its age and the download-only factor, I am probably prejudiced against this album, so it hasn't been enough to convince me to add De Orto to my "favorites" list. Ultimately, I guess the music needed to blow me away, and it doesn't: There's nothing I can really put my finger on that sets it apart. It's well worth (maybe I shouldn't say that, given the specific circumstances, but in the abstract) hearing, though, and helps paint more of the total picture for this repertory.

12 November 2014

Nothing to discuss this month, but there are some items on the horizon.

This is the last time I will make a "nothing to say" post. In the future, I will post as needed, more or less than monthly. Some changes will be made to the framing comments here soon.

September 2014

I want to remind performers that it is sometimes difficult to learn of new releases in this area, particularly with our desire to be complete for music of c.1500 era & before. This becomes more true, both because of changes in the way music is distributed, and because of changes to who collaborates with me here. The bottom line is, if you want your album listed, be sure to tell me about it, and if you want me to discuss it, you need to send it to me so that I can hear it. Regarding the latter, I get things from a variety of sources, but none of that adds up to something complete, and especially with Europe-only releases being so expensive, I cannot guarantee that I will spend the money to hear them (although I sometimes do; however, this is not a high-paying job; in fact, it pays nothing at all). This is especially true for relatively unknown performers, which is probably unfair, but also, if you think about it, inevitable. So if you want me to hear something (medieval, I mean, not just anything), then send it to me. This statement can also double as a pre-commemoration of 20 years of the FAQ project, which began in October 1994: Although various components of that project have atrophied, in part because of various changes to the web over twenty years (and I have no intention of adopting a commercial visual style here), I do attempt (and, I think, largely succeed) to keep our comprehensive discographies up to date, and to remain current with new interpretations. Thank you for your support.

Alla Francesca has followed up their impressive trouvère production (devoted to Thibaut de Champagne) with a troubadour album. This is another easily recommendable program & interpretation, making its way promptly onto my personal list. Both the singing & instrumental work are excellent, as is the way the forms are articulated, etc. In fact, if anything, as interpretation of this repertory becomes more polished, it is the repertory itself — or lack thereof — that becomes the limitation to creating engaging new recordings. Here, some of the tracks use melodies from elsewhere, and even some performer composition, although that has become standard in the accompaniment. I cannot escape the impression that this repertory has nearly been mined for about all it's worth, at least in its strictly historical sense, and so we'll see where such productions turn in the future. I will likely need to elaborate this thought a bit in the coming months.

August 2014

Nothing to report this month, but it appears there are a number of notable releases on the horizon, as is so often the case when we head into autumn.

July 2014

Ensemble Céladon had not really registered for me before, and they've spanned rather more than the medieval period in their repertory, but their recent troubadour album is among the most compelling current releases in that area. As discussed in the remarks for my personal list, the repertory itself is some of the most central & enjoyable, while the performance is excellent. My one complaint is the modern approach to breath support, although that is mitigated by a thoroughly non-modern approach to tuning & ornament. To my mind, this is one reason it's been difficult to capture the spontaneous feel of this music. It should leave one gasping a bit, rather than in complete control of the voice. In any case, the recording is easy to recommend, and quite enjoyable.

June 2014

The latest release from Cappella Pratensis, continuing under the direction of Stratton Bull, is Josquin's Missa Ave maris stella, a cycle that is very well-served on CD at this point. I have often been critical of Cappella Pratensis's approach in this space, but I must say, they continue to develop their style, and this latest album has some real strengths. Rebecca Stewart's work in plainchant founds much of their approach, and that chant-based emphasis is clearly audible here, not least because of including some plainchant tracks together with this plainchant-based mass cycle. This is a less rhythmic (compared to the earlier medieval) form of plainchant, however, and so I find it less engaging — but this would have been the style of chant with which Josquin himself was familiar. The other thing Cappella Pratensis retains here is a sort of "fuzzy" resonant sound — not to the degree of some older English ensembles, of which my wife once spontaneously remarked, "They sound like they're singing with mouths full of marbles" — and a consequent seeming reluctance to articulate. Nonetheless, the control of rhythm & pacing (as well as ficta) is excellent: This might be the most compelling handling of rhythmic proportions that I've heard, so that's quite notable. The result is a very coherent & worthwhile reading of this well-known music. (The liner notes focus on the liturgical context & meaning of the music, and mention only the ensemble's all-male conductor-less nature, "small" size, and practice of singing from original notation in choirbooks — none of these being novel practices today, although singing from choirbooks is the least common of the set. I had hoped for some technical comments on rhythmic implications.) This album was added to my personal list, giving more variety to the interpreters listed. I nearly added their previous album, devoted to Ockeghem & La Rue Requiems, except that I'm so taken with the idea of performing the La Rue at notated pitch, something Cappella Pratensis doesn't do. In any case, theirs has become one of the more interesting series of the moment for c.1500 polyphony, more than twenty years after their first Josquin recording.

May 2014

Discussion

I will now be keeping at least a year of remarks on this page. (This will be violated at first, because I will need to build a year of remarks, starting from October 2014, when this change was made.) This will allow readers to construct their own year-end summaries of recordings in this category, if they so desire.

Because of changes in the recording business, and taking a more flexible approach personally, the timeliness of remarks will not be as much of a priority as in the past. So items might be discussed somewhat later than they appear, and the "year" in releases will be compromised.

(I will dispense with the other self-serving remarks that used to occupy this space, and keep it brief.)


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Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>