Opinions on the merits of recently issued CDs have been in demand here at the FAQ. Generally speaking, we try to concentrate on factually-based information. However, I am now doing the present editorializing. I will be writing some remarks every month on recordings which inspire me to make remarks.
These are brief remarks, not real reviews. The remarks may assume that the reader is familiar with various other items, or even the recording in question. I urge you to always look at "FAQ references" links in the referenced files, as well as the CD files themselves. For more comments on what a "review" means to me, as well as links to some other opinions, see the bottom of this page.
Comments are updated at the end of each month, and appear in months during which the CDs actually make their way to me, allowing a few days at the end of the month to prepare the comments. I do not delay in requesting new releases of interest, but the vagaries of shipment from Europe can mean that items arrive here in later months. I do not consider CDs to be "new" if I did not attempt to hear them when they first appeared.
The Christophorus label continues its unprecedented exploration of the secular music of the late 15th century with another recording by Ensemble Leones, this time devoted to Agricola. Agricola's secular & instrumental music has fared remarkably well on record, with this the 4th dedicated collection (not even counting Graindelavoix's landmark "Cecus" album). As with the other releases by this group of related ensembles on Christophorus, the attention to detail in the instrumental work on this release rises to another level. This item was added to my personal list, replacing the releases from the 1980s & 1990s.
A 3 CD set of motets by Willaert performed by Singer Pur has also appeared this month. This is from a late & retrospective collection of motets & madrigals by Willaert, Musica Nova published in 1559, and apparently closely corrected & supervised by the composer. The close attention to text underlay provides an opportunity to study that practice in music that would have been somewhat old-fashioned at the time. There is a tendency toward placidity, however, that marked Italian origin sacred music of the period, much as per my remarks on Arcadelt in November. This trend also clearly influenced music written for social circles outside the Vatican, as in this publication. By this time, this is what Willaert's younger colleagues considered to be "classical perfection," already inscribing (via the family, per the liner notes) the "Palestrina style" with revisionist history.
So after expressing some frustration last month, the new Ockeghem recording from Musica Nova did indeed arrive in March. This item came with high expectations, buoyed by waiting since December when it was officially released, and it's indeed a strong interpretation that I added to my personal list. It replaced the old Hilliard Ensemble recording, which had been on that list for the longest period of time, and so somewhat marks the end of an era (within the extremely narrow field of me making recording lists). Although the Missa Prolationum had received three other full vocal interpretations in the interim, none had really distinguished itself. In Musica Nova's case, the recording makes for a natural followup to their ground-breaking 4-fold recording of the Missa Cuiusvis toni, and clearly builds on that experience. While not as illuminating as that recording from 2007, the current release gives us an updated interpretation from manuscript sources of one of the monuments of the period, along with two motets.
I've still not been able to obtain a copy of Kandel's new Ockeghem recording, as delays pile upon delays. I'm starting to wonder if it will ever actually be available here.
That leaves me with a brief discussion of an arrangement of Ars Subtilior music for solo classical guitar, Guitars Subtilior by Branimir Krstic. I like the idea of taking medieval repertory to new places, and so this effort is welcome, although the sound is very much that of "classical guitar" with the medieval aspect not sounding very characteristic at times. Different tuning would probably be necessary to change the instrument's resonance and give a more medieval sound, but perhaps that is not the point.
We have had quite a fertile last few years in investigating Franco-Flemish polyphony, although it would be hard to say that the picture of Josquin as either composer or person has clarified much. There remains a great deal of uncertainty about his life & oeuvre, seemingly ironic for the most celebrated figure of the era, but perhaps a natural outcome of that fame. A recent recording by the previously unknown (to me) Cut Circle ensemble tackles a very specific piece of Josquin's career, including music by contemporaries for context — and illumination of their own. Besides some rather specific stylistic investigation of Josquin's music, this album includes the most music devoted yet to both De Orto & Weerbeke (the latter at a mere three tracks). Although I had pages at the FAQ for the composers to whom Petrucci dedicated his first six volumes of mass publications (including Weerbeke), I only now inaugurated a page for De Orto, the composer of the seventh such publication. The complete Missa L'homme armé from De Orto is the most striking piece on this double album, which (unfortunately?) includes many individual mass sections without their full cycles. In that sense, besides largely introducing De Orto, the program is constructed to illustrate stylistic or technical devices in Josquin's music at the Vatican. In fact, it's suggested that Josquin's first L'homme armé mass might have been written to one-up De Orto's (and De Orto's Missa Ad fugam to one-up Josquin's, although the latter might not be authentic). Whereas De Orto's music presents a rather "busy" style (sort of a more old-fashioned — metrically — Gombert?), it's difficult to generalize about Weerbeke's style from the three very different tracks devoted to him. It should also be noted that the "recent" nature of this production is only partial, as the two complete mass cycles were recorded back in 2008, and only now released. Overall, this program presents some intriguing and previously unknown music, and makes some interesting interpretive suggestions about some better known music. One thing it rejects rather decisively is the older generation of "smoothed over" interpretations, where this music was conceived as slow & meditative, and individual parts tried to hide in the whole (via ficta, ignoring rhythmic displacements, etc.). I'm not at all sad to see the "smoothed over" style go.
Given how often I've agitated in this space for a new recording devoted to Busnoys' songs, I should mention one produced this year by Asteria. This is a male-female duo who have done other programs of songs from the era, although this is the first devoted to a specific composer, and their album is a detailed glossy production recorded on location. Although I appreciate the attention to the repertory, I didn't find the interpretation to be very compelling (in its phrasing or handling of ficta, for instance). Perhaps this album will lead to more interest from others.
Les Flamboyants has followed their very interesting program devoted to Japart from last year with a similar program devoted to Isaac. Both are from the same recording sessions. In this case, Isaac's music is better known, and also often more typical of the period, so the program is less revelatory. However, it's an outstanding interpretive effort devoted to a well-chosen program of his secular & (perhaps) instrumental music. It's interesting that with my many calls for more or new recordings of the great 15th century chansons, the response lately has been with very instrumentally-oriented recordings of the late portion of this repertory. I'm grateful for that, although it does seem to dance around the center, so to speak. These efforts also frame the beginnings of instrumental composition, or rather its widespread survival in the sixteenth century, and I suspect that is a big part of the motivation. This recording has been added to my personal list, and I look forward to more efforts in this direction, as well as eventually more vocally oriented releases.
In the same vein is another recent program by the previously unknown instrumental trio, Qualia (although none of the members is unknown). This trio's work is based in part on long practical research into instrumental construction & sonority, and indeed it's the sonorities of this album that are the most striking. The program is kind of a strange mix, although it does provide an interesting perspective with its emphasis on duos, an unusual form for the era.
The also previously unknown "Magister Petrus" ensemble has released an album of Latin songs from the 12th century. The interpretation adopts a performance style for these works within the troubadour mold. Whereas the troubadour songs came out of courtly culture, these Latin songs came out of scholastic or monastic culture, and likewise include love songs within broader religious or political themes. This generally more flexible and secular-like performance of these pieces is welcome, and will hopefully lead to more attention for this repertory, which is rather substantial compared to its recorded footprint thus far.
Although somewhat to the side of items I usually discuss here, a recording devoted to Arcadelt's sacred music provides an opportunity for some commentary on the mid-1500s. First of all, as far as I know, this is the first recording devoted entirely to Arcadelt's sacred music in the CD era. As one of the leading composers of the so-called "lost generation" — the previous fact illustrates the literal aspect to the term — together with Gombert, Clemens, Willaert & Festa, a program devoted to Arcadelt's sacred music is certainly worthwhile. Arcadelt worked with Festa in Rome, although he was from the North, and this program must be heard in that context. The liner notes take the distinctly ahistorical perspective of describing Arcadelt's music in terms of "anticipating" Palestrina, a perspective undoubtedly motivated by the public's presumed greater familiarity with Palestrina's music. However, the ensemble itself is named for Josquin, so there's a certain ambiguity there, and it does seem that the performers have a sound historical basis for their interpretations. The bulk of the program, that minus the opening & closing motets, is devoted to Arcadelt's period at the Sistine Chapel, which strongly overlapped the period of the Council of Trent. The ethos of musical simplification heard here can be taken as basically immediate. In contrast to the technical tour-de-force that opens the recording, the Mass (and later the motets) take the approach of alluding to technical devices without working through them. Personally, I find it unsatisfying in this regard, but it does raise the broader aesthetic question: What exactly is the point of working through a mechanical procedure, when it can be suggested more briefly and followed by different ideas? Is this not the more sophisticated approach? (When it comes to being knocked over the head with "procedure" in Bach, I do take this rhetorical point of view, although there procedure is already retrospective.) Setting these questions against the historical context and demand for musical simplification to appeal to the broader population, of course we can view the allusions as nods to the "in crowd" while keeping the music from requiring the sophistication to really follow them. This idea of brief allusion had already had an illustrious history, although differently embedded in technique. Set against the backdrop of the two motets from Arcadelt's earlier Florentine period, one can hear the straight historical continuity of this technique, which is well worth doing, but it is almost impossible not to hear what comes after the opening track (and pace the subject) as weak, and ultimately unsatisfying. I have little doubt that this was a contemporary reaction by at least some musicians. How it eventually played out with the short figures of the classical style, erected into broader multi-faceted structures, of course we know. I cannot say as I find myself any more compelled by the so-called Palestrina style than before, however. Perhaps that's my loss, but then, the systemic disasters of the 1500s are hardly an attractive calling card for the intellectual turns of the era.
The latest recording from Fabio Bonizzoni is a double album devoted to Frescobaldi, especially his toccatas. This album actually led me to determine I was no longer interested in Frescobaldi's keyboard music, and in turn to restructure my Renaissance instrumental listings into a single list. This should not be taken as a condemnation of the interpretation at all. Rather, it had a strong effect on me. I suppose I had always found Frescobaldi rather enigmatic in his keyboard writing, a feeling I saw reflected in reviewing some of my material on the subject. Perhaps Bonizzoni's clear articulation and emphasis on the "story" of each shattered the mystery, and got me to hear Frescobaldi more as some of his contemporaries had, those who said he didn't have a real command of counterpoint. Regardless, I still enjoy his idiosyncratic ensemble canzoni.
I intend to keep 4 to 6 months' worth of comments on this page, depending on the length of the individual entries. Once the comments expire, they are gone forever, and rightly so.
My opinion of "reviews" is as such: It takes a good deal of work to write a proper review. Simply paraphrasing the liner notes and adding something to the effect of "It sounds cool to me; check it out!" or "It doesn't seem like the performance from which I learned the work" does not do the job justice. Any time someone is asked to churn through a long list of recordings to regularly write reviews, there is almost no chance that the reviews will be fully informed. The only chance is if the reviewer is intimately familiar with the music in question, the requisite interpretive decisions, and the intentions of the performer. This can only be true rarely, even for a scholar. We do not attempt to write regular reviews for the FAQ, nor do we call them that. Beyond not wanting to inject more opinion than necessary into our information, this is an admission of our own failings, and frankly, many reviewers should admit the same instead of pretending to write reviews about something with which they have little familiarity (that this happens frequently is patently obvious).
I sometimes write reviews, but I am not attempting to write any here. Hopefully the editorializing I am doing will, however, be interesting. I usually restrict FAQ comments to be positive only, but here I will give some negative comments too, if that is the notable thing about a release. As for what silence says? I leave it to you to infer.
To more of Todd McComb's personal opinions:
See also: discussion of "progress" in interpreting this music, or links to other recordings lists.
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