Remarks on Recent Recordings

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.


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>