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 (in parallel with the twenty years discussion), I will be making comments here on an intermittent, not 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 — & usually deriving from the recently issued CDs list — will be mentioned in this space.
Comments are in reverse chronological order, i.e. newest first.Todd M. McComb
Perhaps it started to feel like a long wait for remarks on the new Tinctoris / Barbingant album from Beauty Farm, but it's nothing compared to the old days of waiting for several weeks for CDs to arrive from Europe.... The novelty in this case, though, was that I was already able to hear the music online — but not to read the liner notes. (And one never knows if liner notes will be worthwhile until one reads, but it seems irresponsible to write a review without considering what the producers have to say.... And in some ways, as a writer, I like the idea of making the writing something of a premium feature, but this only works if it's readily obtainable! OK....) Anyway, I'd already enjoyed the music, especially the Tinctoris mass, and so added the album to my personal list before it actually arrived. As those remarks emphasize then, I'm particularly taken by the Tinctoris cycle, perhaps because it's in three voices at this late date.... There's something masterful & summarizing (& economical? hence intensifying spirituality?) about it, increasingly seeming like its own apex, or perhaps antapex, because this piece does aim for the depths.... The Barbingant I enjoy too, and it has a sort of melodic intricacy, i.e. beyond the Faugues reference that comes to mind, but I'm also not hearing it as a major work in the same way. Performance-wise, Beauty Farm continues to show no compromises, performing the entire album with a bare three singers: The sound is huge, though, very present... almost needing to be turned down in order to process. (But I stopped turning it down after a while.) And as noted over in the "list" remarks as well, an obvious parallel for the Tinctoris mass is the Ockeghem Missa Quinti toni (pace that the old 3-part "Ockeghem" Missa Sine nomine is now attributed to Tourout, per remarks here around the album devoted to that previously obscure figure...), a rather different summit, and also recorded by Beauty Farm — in fact, for their only other single disc release! The Ockeghem is a rather more luminous piece, even delicate, exploring modal harmony in more vertical fashion than Tinctoris, but the latter's cycle is also notable for its range, i.e. the bass voice set almost in relief, thus seemingly inspired by Ockeghem (if not by his own 3-voice mass...). There's almost a prophetic, future-oriented & virtuosic, vibe from this seemingly retrospectively oriented cycle.... And this is the third recording (I believe...) of the Tinctoris Missa Sine Nomine No. 1, but clearly also its most emphatic & expressive: The entire cycle comes off much more compellingly than other Tinctoris mass material too, e.g. as anthologized on the Miroir de Musique album (or via the old Clerks' Group album from 1997, which did seemingly select his two most appealing cycles nonetheless...). Maybe there wasn't so much contemporary enthusiasm for Tinctoris because there wasn't anyone (with the stature) to express it? He seems increasingly to belong in this conversation as much more than a (mere) theorist.16 November 2022
After The Dufay Spectacle, I'd remarked that Gothic Voices should consider another album devoted to Dufay. Instead it seems that they've continued to record Dufay, including more isorhythmic motets, but amid more general programs: The Splendour of Florence thus joins Echoes of an Old Hall in featuring Franco-Flemish polyphony, including by Dufay, around a semi-particular context. Technically, The Splendour of Florence is actually a more coherent program (versus the awkward "Reverberances" linkage to Old Hall...), but I can't say that I've really loved it as an album. So this reaction raises additional questions about these sorts of comments in 2022: There's an attempt to "forge an album" here, including some small thematic groupings & plainchant insertions, but isn't the "natural outcome" for an endeavor such as this actually a bunch of individual tracks on random play? In other words, I'm not sure the effort to make this program cohere is actually necessary or even worthwhile, but I'm also not sure what to do about a sort of track-by-track response: It seems too much, but then per remarks I've been making lately on Ars Nova music, perhaps it's also a sign that my comments need to move into a different register, i.e. as a new generation of performers proceeds, in general, with the level of technical polish that I'd long been wanting here.... (So in the context of comments in this space from many years ago, these are now all excellent performances.) Of course, Gothic Voices also happens to be a kind of amalgam of a new generation of performers with an "old" ensemble, and mixed programs of this sort were prominent in their prior run. It's also that much easier e.g. simply to program digital Dufay tracks from other releases into one's own pseudo-album, which I believe I'll do here.... That said then, The Splendour of Florence also marks Gothic Voices' debut in the Ockeghem discography, including a pleasing (if a bit muddy, particularly pace the history of this group...) Alma redemptoris mater (the Ockeghem motets suddenly not having been recorded so often recently). The program underlines the distinctive sophistication of Compère's chanson writing for me too, as well as the fact that Busnois remains increasingly spectacularly neglected.... (I mean, when I learned this music from Reese so many years ago, it was Busnois who was presented as Ockeghem's nearest peer, and indeed as his superior in secular music!) Oh, and I also enjoy the twangy harp here, even as the texture is overwhelmingly vocal (thus making for a ready comparison with the Orlando Consort in some of this material...). I don't know, but despite good ingredients, the result here (i.e. the overall program) still seems forced to me (perhaps even hastily assembled), even as I do welcome more attention to the 15th century.... I also have to wonder if this response will seem rather inadequate in a few years, assuming I'm mainly interacting with this series as isolated tracks....13 November 2022
And I should note the new Remede de Fortune from Blue Heron: I've actually been monitoring them, so to speak, waiting for their second volume of Ockeghem Songs, which was promised for 2022 (& which, I'll admit, was on my mind in part because I started naming records of the year again last year...): The good news on that is that, although they now say 2023, the final installment of the series is portrayed, with a cover & everything, in the discography appearing in the back of the Remede de Fortune release notes.... Remede de Fortune is a live concert recording, however, from 2019, and I suspect the release was substituted due to (pandemic-related) delays in preparing the Ockeghem. So I don't think things were exactly planned this way, and their Remede de Fortune isn't nearly as polished overall as the first Ockeghem volume, but does also include many fine moments. (In particular, the degree of mastery in vocal articulation seems to vary from track to track....) It's not all of the music from Machaut's Remède either, truncating the longer & more repetitive items, but also includes various other pieces as well — to reflect more of the content of the substantial unscored portions of the poem. The original production was also a multimedia concert, including more poetic recitation (a small amount of which is retained...) & projection of the illuminations. So again, I don't think the CD release was really the intent, but there're some excellent tracks. (It follows their A 14th-Century Salmagundi, earlier readings released early in the pandemic period, presumably as an alternative to concert activity....) It's a difficult field, though, in that much of the 14th century has been rendered coherently at this point, making interpretations more a matter of personal choice.... (There's plenty of music in the 15th century & into the Josquin generations that hasn't been rendered coherently, as of yet, so I consider my role around that here to be a little different....) The sound quality of the concert recording is also less crisp, etc. Still, 2022 has been a slow year for medieval music, especially after the relative explosion of important items in 2021, so it's good to hear this....10 October 2022
Mouton is then another composer in the immediate wake of Josquin whom I've auditioned over the years, at one point excited to hear more, but never really had click (so to speak...). Following the Willaert comments, and with a second album from the Brabant Ensemble appearing this month, this also seems like a good time to offer some further interrogation in this space: I'd suggested that Willaert can come off as Gloria after Gloria, a sort of ongoing exaltation buoyed by concepts of alternation & ultimately architectural solidity & resonance... leading straight into the Venetian school. Mouton likewise can be affectively monotone, perhaps even more in the realm of "prettiness," or per some quotes from Rice's notes, "gentle & delicate," "loosely imitative and texturally light" & finally "uncomplicatedly joyful." However, Mouton — who died in 1522, so 500 years ago — also shows a real flair for both melody & counterpoint (e.g. in various solemn canons), taking up a variety of musical figures & contrapuntal arrangements straight from Josquin (as with the Faulte d'argent mass here), and so a general description of his music might suggest that I'd particularly enjoy it. It continues to leave me flat, though, aside from this generally pleasant, decorative aspect. And Brabant is generally a "pretty" ensemble itself, so it does seem like a good combo.... (Mouton can indeed seem very French, and worked the last 20 years of his career at the French royal court. One might even suggest a sort of "French cleverness" to his music, in contrast to Willaert's. And of course, continuity with the subsequent Parisian chanson....) I'm actually wondering more about Mouton's chansons at this point, though, as recordings have generally featured his sacred music (an orientation grounded in his own name, apparently...), but what he really seems to lack are "big picture" ideas. (Of course, unlike Willaert, classic musicologists never made a case for Mouton as one of the greats of his generation either.) His sacred output is indeed quite substantial, though, a complete edition underway.... The songs I don't really know: There're various "medievalisms" in Mouton's music too, partly just as a matter of its textural variety (& Mouton is texturally innovative too), but also as something that might appeal to a more old-fashioned listener: What I find, though, is that Mouton's (sacred) music tends to lack a directly communicative quality: It's highly decorated, including e.g. by canonic entries prior to their main articulations (to name one aspect that works against concurrent "understanding"), not so unlike some English cycles of the period (that similarly leave me unaffected) — versus e.g. Ockeghem or indeed Dunstaple, who offer a more coherent rhetorical sweep with direct affect. Textual references (that become increasingly prominent in Mouton's generation) thus become a kind of (musical) abstraction themselves, i.e. through which we're led to think about how the music corresponds to the text, rather than experience musical affect more directly.... The result can end up seeming monolithic, despite the (sometimes overwrought) contrapuntal variety. Mouton's "technical palette" is thus not unlike La Rue's, but his musical effectiveness seems considerably less, almost tending toward the vacuous (if I dare say...).6 July 2022
In some ways, Willaert has been an elusive composer for me: Sometimes I'll talk as if I haven't really heard much of his music, and he was indeed quite prolific, but then other times I realize that I've actually heard dozens of albums over the years.... These haven't necessarily resonated with me, though, as Willaert's rather broad output has proven difficult to render with passion. So although Willaert is still of the generation following my focus here — and I do continue to feature a smattering of repertory from the subsequent era of music publishing — I want to take a moment for a longer discussion of the recent series from Dionysos Now!, beginning with Adriano 1. I also have to apologize, because I don't have detailed information on these vinyl releases. I'm not "a vinyl person," but these are also available as downloads, albeit with limited info. (This sort of vinyl & download combo is becoming common in contemporary music too, but then the issue becomes whether the download includes the info. In this case, though, they are releasing a separate "book" but via LP channels. And if readers are curious about review copies, I do receive many review copies, but this situation is usually in flux. These days, that's almost entirely downloads, and many are simply "available" meaning that I have access to download them, but might not notice individual items, etc.... And the notes might or might not be included, although this aspect has been improving. And then things will also shift in availability as distribution changes, etc. I haven't wanted to pester artists about this, especially when they've hooked me up via prior distributors for instance, and I also made a firm policy decades ago not to let freebies dictate what I discuss, so I just kind of float through this situation as best I can.... After all, this is not really a profitable arena for anyone. I do appreciate when people think of me though....) That said, I've particularly enjoyed the Dionysos Now! albums, and they include top international singers, e.g. from Beauty Farm, including their leader Tore Tom Denys: Renditions emphasize line, not unlike Beauty Farm's recent recordings of Willaert's contemporary Gombert, but images also seem to show Denys conducting. The performances are quite strong, however, with a directness of expression & powerful momentum. So what about Willaert's music? I've been enjoying Adriano 1 a little more than Adriano 2, I guess, but the secular material included on the second program does add a further aspect to the survey — & provides some quite direct expressivity as well. (All performances in the series thus far are entirely vocal.) The sacred material, though, even as it's certainly masterful, does seem to involve more a sense of abstraction: Unlike with Gombert, who can of course be accused of affective monotony as well (or at least of not responding to texts particularly closely, per the prior entry here...), but with a sense of "flow" that I continue to enjoy, Willaert's music involves a variety of register changes & alternations, another way of filling sonic space with polyphony, but more starts & stops, more concern with mapping vertical space. There's thus a very "busy" (sloshing?) quality to much of this music, pervasive imitation animating entire coordinated textures motivically. It also comes off more as "decoration" than as expression per se, i.e. as pretty or even showy, energetic but at a remove from directness. (One can feel not only that Willaert heralds the subsequent Venetian repertory, which he certainly did, but the Baroque in general....) It's as if prior expression, i.e. that subsumed in chants or motets, is then simply duplicated & spread around a broader sonic space, illuminating every nook & cranny, so to speak.... (There's sometimes a resulting compactness from this verticality, more so than linear extension, but then these comments don't particularly apply to Willaert's songs....) Indeed, it's a style not unlike e.g. the most elaborate English masses of the period, saturated with figures, but basically non-rhetorical. (Maybe it can even be called architectural, particularly via use of register.) These programs can thus come off like Gloria after Gloria, but almost (or because of this...) at a distance. (Maybe there's even a sense of "discovering" the score, i.e. as a technology: The result does seem less spontaneous, even e.g. than Josquin masses, which already sound researched... and of course Willaert was to move on to Ricercari per se, i.e. to move to a further level of abstraction. The latter pieces do continue to seem seminal for me, but still not with a close affectivity — even as they lead into the history of developing notions of affect per se....) I do continue to enjoy various items from Willaert, though, and there're probably still pieces I'd enjoy more than others, but it's challenging to sift through his large output: Much of it would still be "showy" though, as e.g. the hypothetically attributed 7-part conclusion to the recent In memoria mea, or maybe even the climactic 12-part Inviolata on Odhecaton's Josquin anniversary program (which isn't actually suggested as by Willaert, but shows some similar traits), illustrate contextually.... I don't think there's any question of Willaert's historical importance, though, as Palestrina is really only more austere (but reflecting a similar abstraction...). As noted, one might even figure Willaert as the first Baroque composer, if one wants to be historically aggressive.... He more or less defines "ornate" in these works, while directly elaborating a post-Josquin style.21 June 2022
And Beauty Farm continue their focus on Gombert with a third double album of motets, rerecording some from prior releases (not to mention from earlier Sound and the Fury albums...), mostly because of new editions, i.e. those also used for their recent Gombert Masses discs (as reviewed here in December 2020): I feel as though the masses are basically stretched out motets sometimes, but did call that their "best rendition yet," emphasizing "flow" & letting the dissonance loose. (The included notes here characterize their approach as less smooth, though, i.e. because the dissonances aren't altered for vertical concerns, but for me, that ends up sounding flowing, i.e. lines not being bottled up by others....) So these latest discs of motets continue that approach. I've also noted, e.g. over in my personal list remarks, that I hadn't really discussed individual pieces: The notes for this issue then observe an "almost total absence of any relationship between music and text" in Gombert's music, i.e. a sort of generic style. Still, I find it fascinating, enjoyable & illuminating — even if the counterpoint can seem to have its own logic irrespective of the texts. (In that sense, Gombert marks an endpoint. And it also struck me that these liner notes use "ethereal" in a positive sense: I'd call this a very earthy rendition, and I mean that positively too!) Does that mean less emotional resonance then? I tend to think it points more toward (the still anachronistic for this period...) notions of "absolute music." The music also comes to sound almost spontaneous, as lines generate concords & discords seemingly of their own logic, projecting a sort of linear continuity further inflected by the continuity of this series of interpretations.... And so after recording Gombert motets in 2014 & 2016, Beauty Farm returns with these (relatively unspecified, presumably due to pandemic...) 2020/21 recordings, further positioning Gombert's music as a unique apex of Franco-Flemish counterpoint. As well as reflecting back, perhaps, on the latter's particular, overall logic.7 June 2022
I hadn't really noted Johannes Tourout (fl. 1460) before, so perhaps some preliminary thoughts are in order before turning to the recent dedicated album: Tourout was in the employ of the Habsburg Emperor Frederick III, so working mostly around contemporary Austria — but was apparently from the area of Tournai. He further appears to be a contemporary of Ockeghem, and compositions in parallel with Ockeghem's still seem in relatively short supply. However, his material survives (only?) from Central Europe, especially sources such as Codex Speciálník, and so although a few tracks had appeared over the years, I hadn't really noticed: I tend to think of those sources as emerging from cultural backwaters, and to be mainly useful for correlating versions of pieces and/or resolving scribal errors. I'm sure my response is quite unfair in many ways, but the more local music comes off relatively square-ish rhythmically to me, and (objectively speaking) its composers were not widely influential. But then there are apparently cases such as Tourout, a prestigious master being hired away from the core region.... And Cappella Mariana has indeed been performing the Central European sources in general, including some tracks from Tourout — including his "greatest hit" the motet O gloriosa regina mundi — prior to this. Thus they're clearly his main exponents, after musicologist Jaap van Benthem, that is, who prepared much of the material for publication. The latter includes reworking some pieces surviving with sacred texts "back" into chansons, and those are some of the most appealing tracks on this album... with the motets also having a distinct charm (& as everyone reading this surely knows, Ockeghem left few such works — the style very much being in flux in the interval between Dufay & Josquin...). That first section is the most consistently appealing part of the program, then, and (pace survival...) complete? Van Benthem has also attributed the three-voice Magnificat, but that hasn't made much impression on me.... The four-voice Missa Mon oeil is relatively grand, though, and has some appealing moments, a sort of sinewy delicacy in the Sanctus & evoking a strong chanson feel in the Agnus.... But they've also omitted the Credo without comment, and I suspect it's relatively tedious — as are parts of the (also long-texted...) Gloria. (The reconstructed secular model, included on the program as well, does also seem more like an academic exercise than something I needed to hear....) Moreover, and this is perhaps the most explosive observation: It's not stated with this release, but Benthem has also attributed the three-voice Missa Sine nomine previously attributed to Ockeghem to Tourout, publishing it as Missa primi toni.... (There's also at least one more mass cycle attributed to Tourout, whose name has been spelled variously over the centuries.....) In any case, Cappella Mariana does adopt a soprano-topped texture, but projects nice clarity overall. They come to this survey with plenty of experience, and seem to bring out the main features of the music well. (I should also note that the Passacaille label, like Tourout also from Belgium, seems to have really stepped up its production of intriguing items lately....) So Portrait of an Imperial Cantor is already an interesting presentation, and might herald more...?6 June 2022
La Reverdie has been around since the 1980s, and has made many albums: I tend to associate their style with more outdoors or folksy music, but they've recorded a variety of more sophisticated contrapuntal material at times as well. It still involves extensive instrumental doubling, and with a more "festive" Italianate air than some other groups, but their latest album Lux Laetitiae does make some real "technical" contributions, particularly with three major pieces by Dunstable & Power. (The opening track, by Binchois, feels more like a rhythmic processional, i.e. laud-like....) The largest part of the program is actually devoted to Dufay, though, and e.g. La Reverdie had already released Voyage en Italie 20 years ago (& then even a Missa Sancti Jacobi reading in 2006...), but Dufay releases are also (relatively) frequent in general lately: The obvious reference here is then not only to La Reverdie's own prior Dufay recordings, but e.g. to those of Cantica Symphonia, i.e. another Italian group. But the latter's landmark set is close to 20 years old too, and does start to feel dated. (And La Reverdie did also participate, only as instrumentalists, on last year's massive Giosquino program, another entry into "serious" polyphony....) Still, perhaps ironically, I didn't get much out of the Dufay tracks (compared e.g. to less foggy recent readings by Orlando Consort or Gothic Voices...), particularly compared to the Dunstable portion: I guess this really points to the fact that there hasn't been anything resembling a definitive investigation of Dunstaple's music on record, not even a dedicated program for many years.... (The Orlando Consort did recently release e.g. Beneath the Northern Star with a couple of significant tracks, as did Gothic Voices with Echoes of an Old Hall — both crisp all-vocal English readings, and in the former case, seemingly pairing, presumably coincidentally, with the first part of Florentine Renaissance to parallel much of the program on Lux Laetitiae....) Nonetheless there's a real solidity to the Dunstable tracks here (whereas the Power projects a wonderful sense of filigree via extending verses...), I guess some sort of Italianate Dunstaple then... complete with big cathedral resonance & surprisingly effective recorder parts (& sometimes chimes). The result is actually strongly affective, so makes for a notable release & via an unexpected combination....12 May 2022
Tant vous aime is then the first Josquin release since I wrote the anniversary discussion of recent recordings, still following what's become a trend of late to feature the secular music: In this case, instead of another program devoted to the so-called Seventh Book, Denis Raisin Dadre & colleagues address the (mostly earlier) secular music for e.g. three parts. (The Ricercar label thus presents an obvious pairing with their Ensemble Clément Janequin release of the later songs.) But the program also contains a variety of other material, not only (explicitly) music by other composers, but also some of the misattributed material that seems to follow Josquin around in this space. (It seems the program was selected for variety of sound, rather than anything to do with authenticity. The notes from David Fallows are worthwhile, though, and discuss the various circumstances — apparently reacting to the choice of program after the fact.) And as opposed to the landmark "nuts & bolts" Ensemble Leones reading of overlapping material, which does include some music by others (but perhaps in a more conscious way...), Tant vous aime also adopts more of a "Renaissance" style in terms of tuning & articulation, coming to sound almost like an Elizabethan program via its variety.... Sound is immediately "sweet" (& mean-tone), solemn to begin, but with a liveliness at times as well, even summoning a sense of lightness for some textures. (Raisin Dadre plays only winds here, and the bombard consorts might be the most stimulating tracks on the album....) In fact, there's a real sense of mastery developed here, some actual polish... — albeit directed differently from how I'd prefer: Immediate sonic impressions are thus that this is music of a later era from that of the Christophorus release, i.e. kind of musically disorienting from what I usually hear, but with a sophisticated recorded sound too.... (And we'll see if I continue to review every Josquin release from this point....)11 May 2022
I don't ordinarily feature mid-sixteenth century motet programs, or much post-Josquin music in general, but instrumental music does figure some of the repertory I've been following over the subsequent century or so, and that's thus included e.g. the Recercadas by Ortiz. (I had the second Savall program listed for decades, and since more recently the Cocset album. For many years, there was only Savall....) Indeed, it almost seems obligatory for me to make some remarks about the new Ortiz double album by Comet Musicke, especially considering that their (only) prior release was Quinze (recorded in 2018), i.e. right in the middle of my fifteenth century interests. The ensemble turning to Ortiz, generally more than a century later, thus feels strange in some ways — yet obviously reflects my own preferences in others. That said, the full-bodied motets, unusually (still for the period...) scored explicitly for voices & instruments, do provide a context for Ortiz's elegant instrumental selections, the latter (otherwise) suggesting more of a didactic program. There's also a sort of folksy quality to the interpretations here overall, similar in a sense to how Quinze presents, but there's also no recording date to be found. So although Caleidoscopio was released late last year (& I was slow to order a copy from France...), it's actually unclear if it even predates the relatively austere Cocset set (recorded in 2019 & also including a few other pieces for context). The heavy orchestrations & alternations aren't really my thing either (although can suggest e.g. English verse albums, perhaps...), but there's certainly an energy to the production, a boisterous quality that the more intimate instrumental tracks can almost seem to interrupt.... There's a feeling for the lyricism of the recercadas, then, but also a sort of rhetorical quality via rubato etc., interspersing & inflecting the larger motets in what can seem a "busy" production overall.... However, Ortiz's recercadas also focus on a sort of harmonized monody, i.e. exude linear concentration & rhythmic intricacy, while the motets (alternations & all) do present more of a polyphonic (& festive) environment. They were supposedly quite influential for a short period.... I probably won't be featuring more vocal polyphony from the era in general, though.17 April 2022
I also want to note the new Jenkins album from Phantasm: The program surveys the four-part consorts, thus completing their long-running survey of the 4-, 5- & 6-part fantasies, i.e. Jenkins' greatest works. (And it was actually recorded back in 2012, but released only now... presumably due to awkward "seams" in recording contracts. "Awkward seams" are something Jenkins himself really avoids...!) It's also an album involving organ for half the tracks, and the notes basically state that they wanted to include both performance styles: I still don't understand the choice, as the keyboard parts were clearly intended to help amateur players not to get lost. (They thus seem irrelevant for professionals, but I guess it's still a chance to hear these parts, which do date from the period itself....) And I do continue to enjoy the basic Phantasm sound, but in some ways, this entry is more about the previous Spirit of Gambo recording of the five-part consorts (from 2019), that I didn't even review.... I've now replaced the Phantasm album of that material on my personal list, though. And so I should probably offer some thoughts on my slowness to do so: As I mention there, I guess I was basically "hypnotized" by Phantasm, and their bright top-first sound, more harmonically compact than the more polyphonic approach of Spirit of Gambo. And in my defense, their early recordings did improve upon previous technique, but I also needed a bit of a kick in the pants (which a reader did provide last year...) to move off of the "favorite band" effect that'd developed for me, i.e. obscuring some actual attention to the details of the performances. (And they did make the first full recording of the 5-part fantasies, so that part is always going to be true....) Further, I'm not sure that it's really a defense, but of course the consort material has been something of an "adjunct" for me, in terms of extending some Franco-Flemish interests, etc. I've thus waffled on how much time to spend, leading basically to laziness in evaluating these choices. I definitely need to do better, though, because if I'm going to offer suggestions for this repertory at all, they need to be meaningful. (It should be that or nothing, right?) In any case, after a lapse, I feel I'm finally hearing this music more clearly, as well as confirming my specific interest in Jenkins.... As far as the 4-part consorts, though, I do still prefer those from Spirit to the recent Phantasm release, which comes off more monolithically (although still enjoyably...).1 March 2022
Maybe it's my imagination, but it seems as though releases of significant repertory for this space have become more frequent. Maybe that's just a short trend of the moment, or maybe the proliferation of publishing will mean increasing access to this repertory in quality, contemporary interpretations.... In that, it's appealing — at least to me — when musicians put out material systematically, whether completing a composer's output, some thematic genre (perhaps), or of course a period source: Leuven Chansonnier 2 is an album of the latter sort, the second of an intended four volumes to render this newly discovered (in 2015) source. I reviewed the first volume here back in 2019, noting its program around e.g. Ockeghem songs, as well as unica. Both continue into the second volume, although my impression is that the first program was generally stronger musically (& so we'll see about the third & fourth...). I also remarked upon the vocals & noted the prevalence of instrumental part doubling: This second volume continues with Ensemble Sollazzo under Anna Danilevskaia, then, but with different singers (to reflect the perspective of the songs, say the notes). And there is, if anything, an even busier quality, including e.g. unusual doubling of voices by shawms. There's quite a concern with the orchestration here, combining alta & bassa capella in novel ways, generally doing alternations, etc. To me this suggests a lack of trust in the material.... But there are still intriguing items, and more attention is surely warranted. Some of these other chansons, some lengthy, may end up resonating more than their initial impressions. And the renditions do involve considerable skill (with many of the musicians being, apparently, of a younger generation).24 January 2022
The Orlando Consort continues to be one of the hardest working ensembles in medieval music, at least when it comes to recording. And so I guess their latest, The Florentine Renaissance, should come as no surprise: Continuing on Hyperion, it not only marks a departure from their (presumably still ongoing) Complete Machaut series, while presenting new material, but is in some ways a followup to their Dufay album (released in 2019). Actually, upon returning to reference that album, there's no real genre overlap, as The Florentine Renaissance features a couple of grand isorhythmic motets, as well as e.g. a chanson setting repurposed for a laud text (as well as another by Binchois...), the latter leading into what otherwise seems like a very different (& longer) second half to the program, oriented more on laude & carnival songs around Lorenzo de' Medici & his fundamentalist "successor" Savonarola (who also apparently prompted e.g. Josquin's Miserere setting, not addressed in this program...). The latter then include a variety of music around Isaac, also involving a couple of (sometimes derivative) motets — but also a completely different body of work from e.g. another Isaac secular disc. In other words, after the imposing & technical Dufay motets, The Florentine Renaissance mainly features simpler material (some of it also being reconstructed & so the result of recent scholarship). And the liner notes are definitely long (& dense), connecting this material across generations in Florence, but the musical repertories are still rather distinct technically (& thus don't make for an obvious program combination). In any case, besides the two (isolated) Dufay motet tracks, which are immediately among the most intricate & striking performances of these great works (& I should add, I guess, that the performance of Dufay's cantilena Florentine motet is less remarkable...), the Orlando Consort does a nice job with much of the lighter material: The latter has more often been performed by more colorful ensembles (e.g. including percussion, etc.), but they're rather successful here in projecting a "catchy" quality with entirely vocal resources. (The bulk of the program isn't really music of high interest to me, though....) And I'd also like specifically to congratulate them, as an ongoing ensemble, for not trying to "force" their programs to be mostly (or entirely) of music for four voices. That's worth noting, and certainly adds to the quartet's flexibility.16 January 2022
So a couple of Josquin Year items that I hadn't reviewed are Volumes 9 & 10 of Maurice Bourbon's series of Josquin Masses. These issues apparently complete that series (& it's ten volumes instead of nine, as per the Tallis Scholars & Vocal Ensemble Cappella series, because some of Bourbon's own music is included on a couple of volumes, although not these...), but I also wasn't able to peruse the liner notes, so don't know e.g. recording dates. That suggests a brief digression here: Especially the past couple of years, I've moved more into listening to downloads, not only because of the cost (& this site takes in less money than ever these days... while no one really makes money recording this music, either), but because of the material consequences involved in packaging, shipping, etc. And then the downside is that downloads don't always include liner notes — which can be especially frustrating for a project such as this. In any case, I was indeed able to audition the remainder of Bourbon's series, if not to know some details. [ Edit: Both volumes were recorded in 2020. ] And of course, it's difficult not to turn to the Tallis Scholars series as a sort of reference for a similar project... not that I love everything about that series, but since it restarted, it simply offers the clearest articulation of most of these masses. While the "defects" in the sound, i.e. modern breath support & consequently sometimes strident blend around sopranos, are also found — if not more so — with Bourbon's group.... So in that sense, these series are comparable, and then, particularly by the end, the Tallis Scholars articulates everything so clearly, which I really appreciate, even if I don't really love their sound, while Bourbon is playing more with personal conductorial flourishes.... (And I feel as though the former needs to happen more regularly, or at all, before the latter starts making sense....) So what this basically means for me is that e.g. Bourbon's L'homme armé disc has been worthwhile, since the Tallis Scholars interpretation of that program is quite dated/eccentric (from the 1980s). I also find these later issues from Bourbon to be generally more forceful in their sweep, at least at times, but meandering or murky at others... often stylized (e.g. per typical contemporary choral approaches). But it's also worth hearing other takes on these masses, and Bourbon (originally an engineer...) has remained committed (& with a relatively big, spatialized sound by the end). It's not as though I consider any of the current readings to be amazing... just more steps in a process of interpretive discovery. Josquin's major mass cycles continue to be challenging music to understand & render, and these interpretations do develop a (somewhat coy) personality....12 January 2022
And I wasn't familiar with the Swiss ensemble Thélème prior to their Josquin Anniversary contribution, Baisiez moy, but their previous albums are a broad trilogy oriented on Janequin (that I obviously hadn't noticed). In that, their Josquin album recalls various aspects of the Parisian chanson, and so suggests elements of close compatibility with e.g. Ensemble Clement Janequin's new Josquin album, but they're also using self-consciously modern instruments — in fact, being technical, 20th century instruments, not 21st century instruments. In some ways this is a "spice" & I've enjoyed many of their lively interpretations here — perhaps focusing more on (vocal) effects than my preference in general, but yielding some rousing Josquin (with some very clear motivic articulation)... — but it's also apparently their thing. So let me give more specific impressions. The Buchla appears only on one strange track of buzzing that appears to have nothing to do with Josquin: This track is, uh, enigmatic. The Fender Rhodes, though, sounds more or less like some weird period keyboard. (The music comes through in a straightforward way.) And the ondes Martenot... definitely seems weird, and certainly nothing like instruments available in the past, but I've kind of come to enjoy that too (as a sort of "vocal" accompaniment — an alternate vielle). Of course, given the desire to use these particular instruments, I suppose there's no real reason for the group to be concerned with authorship either. That's largely ignored. But another secular album? My prior comments regarding their scarcity certainly seem to be receding into the past.... And it turns out that I've enjoyed much of Baisiez moy more than I really anticipated, yielding another look at Josquin's output, and especially his (early? epochal?) sense of motif-melody. There's a real whiff of "essence" here beneath the (sometimes self-conscious) weirdness. (And some tracks aren't "weird" at all.)3 January 2022
Not unlike the Josquin entry below, the new Ensemble Gilles Binchois album devoted to Dufay reprises, somewhat, their older disc from 1987. (So that's an even longer interval, but EGB has also been active this entire time....) And not to ruin the suspense, but I've added it to my personal list. Not so unlike the prior entry, though, there's little real conceptual update here. Rather, it's some younger (& older...) performers with a crisper style of articulation, & that much more precise with their period instruments too.... It's also basically the same arrangements of Dufay by David Fallows, dating back decades now. (And I'm not the first person to note that some updated settings would be worthwhile!) There are even the keyboard tracks that seem to define every Dufay chanson album... i.e. the Buxheim factor. So I don't hear a rethinking here at all, but it's still an enjoyable album in a straightforward way, colorful & clearly articulated. And to elaborate, particularly considering the "rethinkings" e.g. of contemporaneous secular material by Comet Musicke, or of epochal Josquin settings even more recently by Graindelavoix, it seems as though Dufay's songs are really calling out for a new treatment. This is some of the greatest material in Western music history, and e.g. the recent Zacara set (of music not so far removed, chronologically or geographically, from much of this...) also shows that the various stylistic strands can be interrogated in a richer & more detailed fashion.... (It's also been a long while since an all-vocal Dufay chansons album, i.e. the Northern orientation, appeared....) The overall flow here, nonetheless, is definitely enjoyable, on a wonderful "linguistic" foundation, and around an outstanding single-disc (approximately one quarter of the Dufay chansons...) program.19 December 2021
The Josquin anniversary continues, this time with a relatively obscure release by an ensemble that contributed more substantially to the discography about 15-20 years ago, namely De Labyrintho: Testolin states that this is their first recording "after ten years" & indeed that the program was one they'd developed back in 2001 (when they formed), but never recorded: It's an appealing program of motets around Jesus' birth, featuring the five-part motet (or five motets...) around the Vespers of In Circumcisionem Domini, but also gears up a larger ensemble for Praeter rerum seriem (which, apparently, Testolin wished he could make even bigger?), and is probably at its richest (interpretively) with the final genealogy motet, Factum est autem (perhaps not coincidentally, appearing recently on The Spirit like a Dove..?). All in all, though, the concept doesn't really seem updated, as the various tracks tend to run together in their impressions, with some fuzzy articulation & passages that don't always seem particularly integrated to the flow. (In this, I'd say the group's "best" album is still Musica Symbolica, recorded in 2004. That album seems more vibrant, in the "thick" of their sonic investigations of the time....) In any case, In principio did give me a renewed prompt to revisit those older albums — once again in Italianate renditions (although less colorful than some of the other Italian anniversary albums here...) — & also to hear updates on some different motets. I'm still waiting on that "big impact" Josquin motet collection, though....17 December 2021
I haven't tended to note interpretations with later stylistic orientations in this space, but did say I'd review all of the Josquin anniversary issues, and have already started in that direction.... So, Josquin's Legacy by The Gesualdo Six does actually present an appealing approach to vocal tone (both high & low...), although it's clearly oriented on later music: The liner notes even begin by linking the program to Gesualdo! But at least that's clear & sincere. In any case, although the singing is "impressive" & the program is (in principle) appealing, the later style tends to wash right over me... the sequence of "points of imitation" blurring from one into the next. Without the fifths ringing out, the acoustic structural markers just aren't there, and it produces a hazy feeling for me (even a headache — & in another sense, does actually make the singing more impressive, since the references aren't there). The notes also ignore matters of "approach" to the music, instead suggesting or implying various universalizing messages, i.e. about how music "just is," i.e. in some timeless way — such that I found myself thinking of these performers as simply reading a choral score (once set into contemporary format...) as they would any other... although there's also a sophistication here suggesting more than that (presumably via their regular, 17th century orientation). And there's a sort of prettiness & grit together in the vocal tone that I do enjoy, as well as impressive (e.g. rhythmic) precision & articulation, even if the whole production seems bizarrely anachronistic.... (Opening with the Ockeghem motet & other 15th century pieces makes this very clear very soon. And then e.g. the Lhéritier does eventually sound "right," articulated structurally by thirds....) But the formal impact isn't generally there for me anymore (... almost as if it's been abandoned along with its context).
And since I'm here, I should go right ahead & note the new The Josquin Songbook as well: That production is very specifically oriented on the mid-16th century, namely vihuela transcriptions in Spain. But as opposed to e.g. Heringman's Inviolata (from early in the anniversary, reviewed here already in December...), there're also — per 16th century Spanish priorities — vocal lines retained, basically transcribing several pieces into monodies (as well as some vocal duos...). So The Josquin Songbook is clear in its (historical) approach, but similar comments do apply from my perspective.... (And a feature for some readers will surely be María Cristina Kiehr, once quite popular in this general repertory, but now seemingly less active....) This release likewise has enjoyable qualities, despite an orientation that I don't really share (although it doesn't betray a universalizing attitude either).3 November 2021
And a new album of anonymous masses by Cut Circle & Jesse Rodin presents some fascinating (but previously unknown) repertory, while taking steps forward in performance practice. To the latter point, these are outstanding renditions of these difficult — the album's theme — mass cycles: Not only did they involve extensive reconstruction from sources & correction of errors, but puzzling through the performance instructions themselves, as well as the physical complexities of rhythm & extended breath.... Cut Circle also remarks on their one-to-a-part style, closely mic'd for a strong vocal presence (& articulation), obviously paralleling presentation styles developed by The Sound and the Fury & Beauty Farm in this repertory, and geared toward hearing the music intimately within the circle of musicians themselves (rather than via the haze of cathedral reflections...), but Cut Circle is especially clear & precise too. (It can also be very clear that a woman is participating, pace historical norms... & contra some other recent groups where gender isn't as clear to the ear. I should note further that, while already involving some impressive interpretive solutions, the first albums from Cut Circle did still involve part doubling....) Or maybe that clarity has something to do with the "high res" recording available (although I should note, specifically, that I'm not contrasting it with other versions...). Besides being complicated, I'm less sure that the music is especially appealing, but it's still an intriguing era. In particular, although he isn't noted as a possible attribution, these masses seem to parallel some of the "constructivist" ideas of Busnoys — & I should note also that there isn't really a "great" Busnois album to this point, the Cantica Symphonia release being another based on similar technical puzzles along with hypothetical attribution... and thus, very much in parallel with this project from Rodin et al., although with a distinctly different performance style around grandeur & instrumental support.... So, in some sense, Messes anonymes addresses the confusing Busnoys legacy, but also recalls earlier 15th century complexities in Italy, especially around the Papal Chapel (e.g. pace Zacara), suggesting almost a mid-15th century version of "academic music" — & as the suggestion implies, also lacks some affective coherence at times around its technical exposition. So, what of this subject of difficulty? I'm not aware of more from the Berkeley conference referenced in the notes, and am probably being redundant (but not sure of it...), but I'm definitely inclined to note two different sorts of difficulty, namely that around the puzzles (which, once resolved, presumably bring a feeling of satisfied completion) & that around the physical challenges of singing (which are never really "resolved," but rather accommodated — with one's ability to do so, perhaps, even declining with age, not increasing with experience...). And then it's worth noting that Ockeghem (among others) took this orientation on puzzles, presumably only entertaining to the singers themselves, and turned it toward more direct expressivity.... (Should I even raise the specter of Protestantism as already driving a sort of "musical clarity" by the 1470s?) Pace the "irrational" quality of Ockeghem's music, though, these anonymous cycles were only reconstructed based on the (presumptive) rigor of their treatments: In that sense, they almost seem to prefigure Obrecht, yet the latter (famously) comes off completely differently in sound than (as seemingly formulaic...) on the page. (One doesn't find e.g. Dufay — or Regis — the melodist appearing here either, but rather a "technical" sort of intensification applied to preexisting material.) Anyway, I can't escape the impression that these cycles were intended to be (technically) impressive for other musicians, and they definitely add to the picture of this period. But what we really need is a few dozen "other" masses recorded with this kind of mastery too! (Via this & other recent releases it's also becoming harder for future singing groups to claim that the music is just too difficult to render directly....) But what I'm also hearing here, more specifically, is a context for the judicious use of technical elements by the ensuing "traditional masters."27 October 2021
The next Josquin issue (also just recorded in June, pace Stewart below) is then the provocatively titled Josquin The Undead, from Björn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix — and this has been the most striking anniversary release (yet) for me. The opening homage from Gombert is performed strongly, not really unusually, but next comes a strangely spooky version of Baisiez moy, and by the time we're to a rollicking take on Petite Camusette (the sixth track), it's more than clear that this won't be a routine reading of Josquin's late songs. The program is actually quite ordinary, though: It's taken from the Susato collection, just like that from Ensemble Clément Janequin (as reviewed here already in January), but instead of leaving the edition alone — i.e. sounding like mid-16th century Parisian chansons — as ECJ (who does refine their own vocal technique, but as noted, kept to the same basic presentation...) did, Schmelzer & company apparently undertake some sort of "un-editing" of the Susato source, producing a program that's more evocative of 15th century style. And apparently it also turns out that this was what I'd been wanting! Regular readers will know that I'd been calling for a new reading of Josquin's chansons for a while, which I'd tempered with the appearance of the Musica Nova program. The latter is also taken (mostly) from the Susato publication, and even includes later organ works (by others), etc. That always struck me as a strange orientation for Musica Nova, as they've mostly recorded earlier music.... In any case, I do still enjoy that program, including e.g. for the great items that Graindelavoix didn't include (e.g. Incessament livre, which would've seemed to fit their project perfectly...), but Josquin The Undead has really captivated me. With the strangeness, I wasn't sure on first hearing, but by the second, it starts to seem almost as if the songs envelop me... there's a sort of sensuality & fullness of sound (despite generally one voice to a part, perhaps with modest instrumental support), a sense that one is being pulled inside another world. (There's a strongly un-mechanical quality, for instance, compared to some less flexible renditions, perhaps even evoking the later madrigal... but not quite.) The entire program is incredibly evocative, and some of these "strange" interpretations have already "ruined" the others for me, such that the album was soon added to my personal list. Whatever happened in terms of making these performance decisions, though, is basically opaque on a technical level: There's no discussion of how they approached the scores, but there's a sort of "psychological" take on Josquin & his late output — & of course the posthumous publication does suggest its own "zombie" quality as well — suggesting a (Freudian) death drive via emphasis on repetition. (Does Schmelzer want to go on to suggest that minimalist music is about the death drive? Maybe it is.... I mean, it marked the end of another historical era, right?) I'm not actually convinced that either Josquin's musical repetition or thematics were particularly notable for his era, but it's an interesting orientation, and there's certainly a sense of the uncanny being projected here (albeit more via reworkings of familiar songs...). Schmelzer basically disclaims historical performance, though, meaning that he's not trying to situate specifically, but there's then a sort of "timeless" late medieval quality emerging as a result, meaning that the (frequently lamenting...) mood isn't so different in (performance) style from his Binchois album (recorded in 2006), even as technique & command do improve. Again there's a sort of familiar-unfamiliar feeling, to some degree taking these songs out of time, yet... somehow capturing them more powerfully (in another register?). There's also a sort of refiguring of the whole "memorial" mood going on here... or a transfiguring, i.e. to a different register (of aching...). And as noted, this release really does show me something new about Josquin's music — even bringing a newly satisfying intimacy. So this might be Schmelzer's most powerful album yet.24 September 2021
Josquin Anniversary releases look to be appearing again for the fall season, including an anticipated album from Rebecca Stewart & company, In memoria mea. In fact, I'd noted this pending release in my discussion of Tetsuro Hanai & Ensemble Cappella here in June. And in most ways my response to In memoria mea (featuring the Missa Mater patris along with three Requiem-based memorial motets) is basically the same: I appreciate the singing technique, some of the slower passages (& textures) being quite appealing, but there's not much rhythmic drive in faster passages or (especially) climaxes. (I was also reminded that Stewart derives part of her ideas on vocal production technique from Indian classical dhrupad, and so, that makes me think of the building to quite intricate rhythms in that style, and indeed the way that Josquin's own music tends to build in rhythmic complexity through a movement or cycle.... But Stewart doesn't really do climaxes, it seems. She mostly keeps it mellow, although dynamics do surge e.g. for the end of the mass....) I also appreciate the reconstruction of the possibly-Willaert motet, suggesting (once again) that there's more intriguing material from the period to hear.... But then what of vocal technique in Josquin? I'll reiterate my prior remarks that this seems like an era in transition (in this way as well...), and I'm very supportive of Stewart's ideas on overtones & timbre, but I guess where I really depart is on "drawing a line" stylistically, in terms of virtuosity, etc. Much of this music obviously involved virtuoso singers, at least for these prominent pieces — which were, of course, always exceptional (by definition). And why would e.g. a laud-motet have little rhythmic contour? It just doesn't make sense. Anyway, Stewart — & this program was recorded just a few months ago, while featuring especially good sound — continues to discover & highlight aspects of the music, even as (per my previous comment) some is "left on the page." What I've also come to appreciate, pace e.g. my recent re-confrontation with Cage, is the "silence" that she finds within polyphony. I think that's an intriguing notion, and goes to a sort of comfort level as well..., again suggesting that (per dhrupad) perhaps these cycles (might) begin with much less rhythmic aggression (even as they develop it themselves along the way)? Anyway, I enjoyed the Requiem-based pieces (per Stewart's chant-inspired approach...) more than the mass cycle (overall), which can seem rather distended & incoherent (as constructed seemingly from a series of passages, particularly in the longer texts...).21 September 2021
And it seems that there will be another burst of Josquin releases later in the year (& perhaps more being made during the year?), the latest being that from Paolo Da Col & Odhecaton: Da Col hasn't recorded often, but his general confrontation with this material goes back at least to the 1990s, i.e. first(?) with the Gombert Coronation Mass program, including a Josquin motet, but also commencing the usual mood of solemnity & grandeur that animates Odhecaton interpretations. (And Da Col had already moved from more obscure labels onto Outhere by reissuing his big Compère production, likewise in the mode of spectacle....) There's also the addition of other ensembles, both to boost the sound in a few moments, and to play a couple of short instrumental tracks. The "main" piece, though, is the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae — seemingly an extroverted, "natural" choice for Odhecaton — taken mostly by the 15-voice male choir, until adding additional groups for a massive & climactic ending. However, the decision to interpolate Tu solus into the mass doesn't work for me (& seems to be a bizarre choice), and with other, more detailed accounts available, the Odhecaton reading ends up seeming on the muddy side. There's still no "go to" reference for the motets, though, and so some of the large-ensemble offerings here immediately become among the best options: Both Praeter rerum seriem & O virgo prudentissima add voices (beyond the base 15), and while the promised potency of the former, opening the album, doesn't quite come to fruition for me, it sets a rumbling stage for those that follow, i.e. mostly motets associated with Ferrara. O virgo prudentissima is gorgeous (using the "big group" to fine effect...), and Inviolata, integra et casta is a potent reading as well — although the program notes say nothing about the (relatively unsophisticated) 12-part adaptation that concludes the program. There's also an obvious comparison to be made with the Cantica Symphonia album, starting with its shared Italian orientation — where Odhecaton does focus much more on music actually by Josquin (while Maletto et al. largely dismissed that topic!) — but also including various performers in common (as well as with the new Zacara set). In that sense, the program makes more sense (& includes better music overall), although it's perhaps less lively per se. (And also per the Zacara comments, some of these Josquin pieces do suggest a "new kind of propaganda" too. Is that what formal innovation means?) In any case, while not as detailed as some productions, Odhecaton's Giosquino album ends up involving a strongly affective overall sweep, with various aspects of large-scale momentum handled with both grace & potency, including via the orchestration of the program as a whole.10 September 2021
Antonio "Zacara" da Teramo was a composer I'd noticed in anthologies — Ars Subtilior anthologies, that is, for some elaborate songs. (I tend to think of his music as part of the broad Ars Subtilior, but I guess some people would prefer to draw stronger stylistic distinctions, in which case, much of his music is actually outside that particular style.) And his songs tended to be particularly elaborate, including a wealth of both contemporary & historical references as well. So in that sense, his music almost seemed like a curiosity, although I definitely enjoyed the previous Zacara secular album by "Currentes" (a Northern group). But I definitely didn't know what to make of earlier dedicated albums either, i.e. those by Micrologus (a group I've particularly appreciated in general...), and before that, the overlapping Sine Nomine ensemble: Those albums felt over-orchestrated to me, as if the performers had added a healthy dose of Baroque sensibility. I guess I just couldn't believe my ears when it came to those albums, burgeoning with ideas & sonic variety. But now with the new complete set from Le Fonte Musica, I'm realizing that those weren't performer indulgences so much as they were direct attempts to render Zacara's spectacular & rhetorical music. And now the 4CD set makes a strong case for him as the greatest composer of his generation.... It's a great production, first of all, including a handful of essays & all the lyrics, reconstructing some of the songs (including via spectral analysis of parchment...), and articulated (musically) with remarkable clarity. Indeed, not unlike my reaction to those earlier Zacara productions (of 20 years ago & more...), I didn't want to believe my ears when it came to the opening Mass movements. And it took me a while to feel as though I was really entering Zacara's musical world, but at that point, the clear diction & studious attention to differing emotional resonance in the various pieces came to seem like a real asset. (One thing about the production, though, is there's no discussion of performance choices in individual works, i.e. why some use instrumental support, what instruments, etc. One goal appears to have been variety, but it's the starkest a capella pieces, one voice to a part, that prove to me that various ideas on space, register & even "orchestration" are embedded in the scores themselves.) The music, then, generally involves an incredible sense of space, as well as sudden stops & changes in direction, the latter heralding the later Renaissance madrigal. At other times, there's a strong sense of declamation — & particularly in the Mass movements, this recalls for me the development of a "declamatory" performance style for Machaut's Gloria & Credo (these long texts presenting different issues than the shorter Mass texts...). So while I went into listening to this project mostly interested in Zacara's secular songs, I also soon began to hear him as — in fact — the most impressive elaborator not only of Machaut's embryonic mass movements style(s), but of the sometimes-bizarre Avignon Mass repertory. That arose from the Papal Court there, and Zacara was intricately involved with Italian politics around the Papacy, so the notion that he was addressing this tradition directly is easy to accept. Indeed, a piece by Zacara is found in e.g. the English Old Hall Manuscript, and the sort of pointillistic styles he (sometimes) constructs suggest parallels with e.g. the mysterious Pycard & other layers of Old Hall, i.e. the last elaborations of the Ars Nova per se. In his Mass movements, Zacara also clearly influences Ciconia — & while I certainly value many of the latter's songs & motets, Zacara is the master here: Ciconia left the smaller output as well, his greatest songs taking on what could be characterized as a more interiorized "Northern" style around flowing lines.... (The "Northern" album of Zacara on Lawo thus projects a more similar style to Ciconia.) Surely Ciconia has been prioritized, then, because of his greater similarity to later music, but also due to the sheer difficulty of Zacara.... (Tangentially, these Mass movements from Zacara have also made me more eager for a complete Matteo da Perugia: I've particularly enjoyed the recent Tetraktys album, becoming one of my favorite secular albums, but that's also a more recent appreciation. And I'd largely ignored his liturgical works, although a couple appeared in the Huelgas anthology, after more in a strangely-Baroque production from Memelsdorff in the 90s....) What Zacara accomplishes in this repertory is then not only integrating a wealth of contrapuntal invention & allusion (into individual, coherent pieces...), but within the sort of "pointillistic" style, a conjuring of space per se: One might even suggest that Zacara's music accommodates a feel for silence (& as I'd been auditioning Cage simultaneously, this feeling was unmistakable... contradictory as it may seem). Its various notions of register, balance, alternation, declamation, etc. also suggest a dazzling rhetorical practice — with the liner notes cryptically suggesting that Zacara was basically constructing a new kind of propaganda around the Papal intrigue. The music seems as though it might fall apart at any moment, yet it doesn't.... (There's a sort of choreography, one might say, that remains in place.) And frankly, while I'm unsure what to make of some of Zacara's material, I feel as though I need to go the extra mile here for the performers, because they've brought a new level of facility to this project. This was obviously a very large project, and Zacara does come off as the greatest composer of his generation — so I'd have to say it's a rousing success! At the least, I have to say that he presents a distinct stylistic pole: When speaking of "an Italian style" against which the Northern developments transitioned European music beyond the Dufay era, Zacara most embodies (or at least most elaborates...) that style. (And it's worth noting the more "inward" focus of later Protestant devotion, the Reformation seemingly being heralded almost in reverse here.... It's hard to suggest much "inwardness" especially to Zacara's sacred music! It's about public spectacle. But although he apparently invented parody, he only quotes himself...!) And I don't actually know what I'd think of Zacara as a person, especially his politics (& e.g. his view of money?), which seems rather confusing (at least at this distance), but he was clearly a musical (& literary) genius. The set was added to my personal list, with the highest rating, although I still need to update that discussion.7 September 2021
Continuing with Josquin anniversary releases — & these do seem to have slowed considerably at this point — I hadn't been ordering from Japan much, and so hadn't heard much of the Ensemble Cappella series: It turns out that ordering by email is quite painless & friendly, though, even as prices are a little higher (& liner notes a lot more Japanese) than most sources these days.... And I'm finding this series to be worth hearing — as promised — & in particular for its vocal technique & textures. And as it happens, the most recent issue shares a program with the first "good" Tallis Scholars album from 2008: The former was actually recorded back in 2013, as apparently they're pacing the releases (although I guess the final, "anniversary" recording was delayed by the pandemic, as they're likewise intending a nine disc cycle...), but is still the latest on offer. As noted, the strength is in the vocal techniques & so textures, yielding a fine clarity & coherence to many passages. As I understand, the approach is derived directly from that of Rebecca Stewart, i.e. specifically her approach to "modal" singing, and so suffers from the same weakness from my point of view, namely that they don't press through rhythmically driving cadences, tending to engage the sort of cliché sighing ritardandi that I'd found so irritating in performances of this music in prior days.... I should back up, though, and restate that the interpretations from Tetsuro Hanai come from a strong place: Much of the music is indeed performed quite coherently, but per Stewart's ideas on vocal production, the singers aren't able to complete some of the lines. (In the past, I've seen it argued that this was historically valid, i.e. that many ensembles would've basically "punted" on some passages, and sung them more simply....) And I want to highlight this not so much as criticism, but to focus on the musical transitions of the era, namely the high degree of virtuosity coming to be involved in "modal singing" (per Stewart's label), likely stretching such technique beyond some of its ritual orientation, very soon leading into "tonal singing" with modern breath support, etc.... This repertory thus seems to fall on yet another cusp of stylistic transition, the limits of prior singing style being reached — & being refigured into something (perhaps paradoxically) less intimate around the Reformation, i.e. basically more in the line of "professional entertainment" (i.e. exactly as had been criticized in ritual terms!). Anyway, I still find the music of this era to be highly appealing, and the sense that it was breaking technical boundaries for voices — & do note that e.g. the new Ockeghem tour-de-force proves that these works can be performed this way, it's just not easy... — highlights another sort of "end of era" feeling for me as well. Moreover, Josquin himself adopted various "simplification" ideas in his later works as well, especially (apparently?) around notions of ritual efficacy, so it seems as though such a tension was felt by him personally.... (And that idea does seem to parallel Stewart's notion that something significant was lost with such a shift toward virtuosity....) In any case, then, the Tallis Scholars rendition is not as coherent in its details as are some of their subsequent Josquin releases, but it's relatively coherent — and in a more modern or generic singing style. I end up preferring it, though, because the climaxes in these pieces are exciting. However, another aspect of the Japanese performance to note is its approach to architectural resonance, which together with the vocal style presents some curious twisting effects... but can also come to obscure some of the lines in a resonant haze. (This aspect of recording continues to be tricky, in terms of engineering, it seems.) In some ways, that also parallels my ambivalent response to this series. (Although do note that, pending more releases around the anniversary, and hence my own "freeze" on new recommendations in this space, their prior L'homme arme album — also recorded in 2013 — is the most satisfying for that program that I've heard to date.... So I don't want to overstate the extent to which Ensemble Cappella is making rhythmic simplifications. Oh, and perhaps I should note that Stewart herself looks to be releasing a Josquin anniversary program with a new ensemble, so that will be exciting to hear, after quite an interval....) So in sum, I don't find these interpretations to be fully satisfying, but they do offer rather compelling readings of various passages that so often end up murky elsewhere, as well as an overall approach that does "make sense" even if it "leaves some music on the page." (And it'd be nice if selecting Josquin albums didn't involve so much "pick your poison" equivocation, but obviously we're just not there yet.... But then, this era also has an explicit tradition of "music as a challenge" for singers, so perhaps this entire process is quite authentic!)21 June 2021
Another ongoing (& seminal) medieval group is then Gothic Voices, and they've likewise undergone various changes, particularly with founder Christopher Page leaving the group. Those changes seem to be inaugurating a new era of fresh explorations for the current vocal quartet, though, as their latest album Echoes of an Old Hall comes to recall the excitement of some of their issues from decades past (i.e. especially as they were pioneering Pythagorean tuning). Regular readers will know that I don't necessarily like these broader programs, and indeed the program extends beyond the Old Hall Manuscript into (later) continental influences, but the production is so immediately striking that I have to take notice. Regarding the history, it's also interesting that this latest album is back to an all-vocal presentation (supplemented by a couple of extra voices when needed), but of course I'd already admired their recent Dufay Spectacle, i.e. another mixed genre presentation, there with a variety of instrumental support. That's also quite an extrovert album, and seems more like a (welcome) consolidation of style, while Echoes of an Old Hall is more about "new" explorations & refinements: There'd already been the Orlando Consort album (2017), and that includes some earlier (versus later) repertory in a larger program, but also illustrates a similar intricate variety. Gothic Voices might bring a little less pure precision, then, but I also start to feel more the "resonance" of the tuning, the basic machinic background of these little jewels. In other words, they continue to take on the feeling of "rightness" & sparkle. Everything thus feels so sophisticated here, and generally well-articulated. (It's definitely worth contrasting the Dufay Ave regina celorum with that on the — also quite welcome — recent Diabolus in Musica album. The Gothic Voices rendition is far more intricate, bringing out all the lines, i.e. lets one hear Dufay's "smooth" style itself as a product of its isorhythmic heritage.... And Binchois is given some similar treatments, although not more compellingly than those of the recent Comet Musicke set, which is likewise grounded in a more medieval approach....) The singers do end up a bit breathless at times, and I'm not sure if that's intentional excitement or remaining challenges to singing this music... probably (authentically) some of both, but they do build to some impressive climaxes at times. And I'm not sure why so many monophonic tracks were included (although it's still a long program, and actually I'm pretty sure they're there to break up the density...). Oh, and the "studio FLAC" for this release was particularly enormous: It does sound great, and is apparently able to accommodate the second half of the program's (dubious, if you ask me) idea to interject some Old Hall material "from off stage...." Anyway, the album was added to my personal list, and I should probably note the previous Nowell synge we... here as well, since it involves some similar tracks (& since I'd ignored it previously as "just another Christmas album"). So having recaptured some of their prior excitement, what's next for Gothic Voices?19 June 2021
I only just noticed that Alla Francesca has apparently moved to the Paraty label, the move coming together with Harmonia Mundi distribution disappearing, and so the label not appearing in North America.... (I've also heard that Harmonia Mundi could be available again soon....) I guess I'll suppress my too-frequent whinging around this general state of affairs, as I did eventually notice.... Also, it appears that Alla Francesca is increasingly Brigitte Lesne's group, as Pierre Hamon didn't appear on their landmark Thibaut de Champagne album, nor did he on last year's Variations amoureuses — but he does appear, in a supplementary role, on the latest, Le Chansonnier de Bayeux. That album is portrayed mainly as a duo between Lesne & Pierre Boragno on winds, and so not really as an Alla Francesca album. But it does also involve "transposing" their approach to the trouvère repertory, namely the involvement of polyphonic & improvisatory elaborations, as well as chasing melodies across genres. Such an approach is welcome in this c.1500 material, which is likewise all monophonic in the manuscript — whether as tunes extracted from contemporary art song settings or as prompting them, apparently in a rich interaction back & forth — & could perhaps be analogized to a book of "jazz" standards. Lesne & Boragno thus provide another, welcome perspective on this later repertory (albeit mostly with recorders, in terms of the sonorities). I also want to note Variations amoureuses more specifically, though, as I failed to notice it last year: Like the Thibaut album, there's a degree of theatricality to the presentation, and an urge to variety overall. There's a high degree of mastery as well, and that stands out, but if I'm to criticize, it's that these renditions become almost "too lively" for repeated auditions.... Nonetheless, Variations amoureuses is another landmark album interrogating cross-genre variations, and was added to my personal list. (Indeed, one might note that e.g. their Gautier de Coincy had already exemplified such sacred-secular hybridity back in 1995, so this is very much a long term development for Alla Francesca.) In this, it continues to reflect a generally increasing facility with music of this broad era....18 June 2021
Johannes Martini (c.1430-1497) hadn't made much impression on me, and so I guess it comes as something of a surprise to be reminded that he left so much music, including e.g. eight mass cycles in one manuscript (originating in Ferrara). And that reminder comes in the form of a dedicated, cross-genre program from the generally excellent — although I still don't appreciate the frequent instrumental doubling, "period" (Italian) or no... — Le Miroir de Musique ensemble. There they position Martini as an early instrumental composer, and illustrate some stylistic changes through the second half of the fifteenth century.... But I guess Martini still doesn't make that much impression on me: Actually I tend to notice the vocal pieces more, just in terms of the fine singing & bigger sound, but close attention doesn't suggest that they're among the era's best. (E.g. Tinctoris, for whom Le Miroir de Musique also produced a program, doesn't include Martini in his discussion of prominent composers. Indeed, besides dying the same year as Ockeghem, Martini seems to have been a close contemporary of both Tinctoris & Busnoys — & somewhat older than Caron, Compère, Agricola....) And relatively speaking, the instrumental pieces fly by without making an individual impression; the program likes to change the instrument families on different tracks to add color. Martini does show an early penchant for reworking other material (i.e. anticipating the parody mass), but his reworkings end up seeming more cobbled together than they do profound.... Anyway, I appreciate the opportunity to hear this program, and so to gain a more personal impression of "another" composer from the glory days of the late 15th century.... This increasingly distinguished group of musicians does appear to have illustrated his broad output rather well. (And so when will they be tackling a fifteenth century program less on the fringes?)2 June 2021
When a recent correspondent let me know about the new Diabolus in Musica Reine du Ciel album, centered on Dufay's Missa Ave Regina Celorum, I was excited: After all, recent momentum — especially after the amazing new Ockeghem album just reviewed — had me anticipating a great reading. Moreover, Diabolus in Musica has recorded Dufay albums already (including the Missa Se la face ay pale), plus their recent Requiem disc (with its Ockeghem cycle from around the same time period) was quite coherent.... Yet despite adding Reine du Ciel promptly to my personal list, I guess I was still disappointed: In some sense, this entry is then a reflection on that situation, basically that a new album could immediately include the most appealing rendition of a significant work & still be disappointing.... But I guess that's always a possibility in the world of historical recreation! And that this interpretation involves significant improvements to both prior concepts & technique seems obvious enough, but after a strong reading of the opening plainchant, the central polytextual motet immediately comes off relatively timidly & even as a little awkward (versus e.g. its sometimes dance-like passagework).... Some of this might have to do with the part doubling & so coordination, defended almost defiantly by Guerber in the brief discussion, but mostly I think the ensemble just didn't spend as much time rehearsing and/or performing the piece in public before recording. If the situation is really as simple as that, I suppose it's not nearly among the top covid tragedies, but still unfortunate.... Oh well. But then, per the contradictory tenor of this entry, it's nonetheless the best recorded performance we have available, so I should still celebrate, right!?19 April 2021
And it's not as long as many releases in this field, but the new Ockeghem album by the new vocal quartet "L'ultima parola" made an instant impression: This is just a great recording of great music & was promptly added to my personal list. (There's been a delay in writing this discussion only because I was waiting for the physical CD to arrive from Germany, so that I could read the booklet... which doesn't really discuss the performance much anyway. Actually, the essay on Ockeghem sounds similar to things I was writing in the 1990s, so that's a little eerie....) Obviously I hope this group continues to record more music from the 15th century (as appears to be their focus), and I mostly have raves. If I'm to be critical, as noted in the linked discussion, having a woman sing the top line isn't historical, but everything works so well here, it doesn't seem like an issue. What else? I think my biggest gripe is actually the way the booklet falls right out of the digipak... this is something we can't get right in 2021? (Packaging generally remains a disaster in all areas of life, but I digress....) There's also an issue of interpretive slowness, which suggests clichés of respect, but these four singers hold their tone so well, there aren't musical issues with it.... Their clarity is great in general. And the polish is amazing for a first album! This is a great example of 15th century vocal virtuosity in general, not to mention such great music from a more technical perspective — and sung basically without compromises.
As far as Josquin anniversary releases, these are already in a lull it seems, but I certainly do expect (or hope for...) more at some point....5 April 2021
As noted, I'm intending to review Josquin anniversary albums this year — & that's (inevitably) going to include some that aren't really to my taste. Actually, I'd convinced myself that the new Golden Renaissance from Stile Antico could be appealing, particularly after spending time with the Brabant Ensemble album & deciding that it had a lot to offer, despite working within a set of performance choices that wouldn't really have been my own.... (Some of the singers are even in common between the two groups.) And I don't want to dwell on negativity, but I didn't enjoy this new release from "major" label Decca very much, apparently the first in a trilogy to be devoted to "Renaissance music" by the ensemble (& presumably the earliest such repertory). That said, the choice of Missa Pange lingua is straightforward & reasonable in the sense that it's a relatively pliant setting, and so amenable to the kind of showmanship on offer here.... (Or maybe not amenable at all, given the cycle's contemplative austerity, but the counterpoint itself does offer more space than some for further flights of fancy....) So while I'd hoped for a more extroverted companion to the "nerdy" (in a positive sense) Brabant program, and was willing to accept some performance choices motivated mostly by later music, this is more in the way of the choral clichés I've lamented here for so long... the "pointless sighing" & ritardandi, moving from climax to climax with so much music seeming uninteresting in between.... In other words, there's a strongly rhetorical quality & — at least for me — it tends to scream out a typical pro-modernist (& again for me, automatically pro-imperialist, i.e. figured as triumph) message that surely dominates the thinking of the parasitic executives at the "major" media outlets.... There're still some great moments here, the famous Ave Maria ringing out, with more of Josquin's greatest motets to follow (plus some later, homage-type pieces), as well as a couple of truly bizarre secular choices (the one ubiquitous & surely inauthentic, the other obscure & stunningly unidiomatic here in its first recording...). Anyway, I've done my duty to review this. I'd truly come into it with positive feelings, hoping for a nice extrovert album (with a strong reading of the Missa Pange lingua, which does happen in spurts...), but this ends up being more in the range of ear candy. And then correspondingly (or paradoxically) ponderous when no striking effects are in play.21 February 2021
I guess I also need to note the recent double program of Binchois & Ockeghem songs on the new-to-me Son an ero label, by the new-to-me Comet Musicke ensemble. Before even getting to a musical discussion, I should also note that I only see this label coming over streaming services & with limited info.... (I "downloaded" rather than streamed a copy, and it did come with liner notes. However, they don't include e.g. catalog info.) So I'm not sure how to react to that, but it does feel as though this program warrants comment, even as I'm also doing so belatedly (for what was, apparently, a 2020 release).... In any case, this is a relatively raucous interpretation, but originating somewhat paradoxically from Francisco Mañalich's study of manuscript incipits for the lower parts in Binchois' songs, suggesting both instrumentation & phrasing. There's indeed some good technical inspiration shining through here, although also seemingly exaggerated at times — & mixed with other ideas on vocal diction, genre... including some poetic recitations (& too much part doubling). The program also continues into what are sometimes some relatively awkward interpretations of Ockeghem.... (The author of the notes seems almost unaware of prior interpretations, so it's kind of strange....) There's actually much to appreciate here, on a case by case basis, even as the album tends to grate on me at times. (Its relative coarseness may well be authentic, particularly the — unstated, mind you — notion that these different songs really belong to different contexts, derive different sounds... and wouldn't really have been thought of as part of one program.) There are definitely some good ideas on phrasing etc. here that can contribute to a better overall picture of this repertory.
[ Addendum: Actually, the more I listen to this, the more that much of the first "Binchois" playlist reminds me of the Graindelavoix album. Such an observation makes claims of a new approach more perplexing (albeit not for the "Ockeghem" playlist), but also underscores that the sound grows on me.... I still don't know what to make of the release mechanism, whatever that actually is, but this is a worthwhile Binchois album, now added to my personal list. - 02/28/21 ]18 February 2021
So Josquin: Motets & Mass Movements from Stephen Rice & the Brabant Ensemble has been the most "musically provocative" Anniversary release thus far, even as the interpretations involve both positive & negative factors from my perspective. Basically, this style of choir & singing was a post-Restoration English invention, since applied to "Renaissance" music in general by 20th century revival efforts: It's a big sound with a sort of "naïve" tone in the top line (i.e. women sounding a bit like children, the latter per 17th century style). There's also the basic "Renaissance" approach here, as updated for the 21st century, featuring various 16th (or even 17th) century parts added to Josquin's motets (in the "si placet" tradition, as cited), and an orientation toward a mid-16th century context that's been the heart of the repertory for the Brabant Ensemble, including its tuning. (In that sense, it's a curious program in that it includes earlier pieces as well, some of which clearly involved a more 15th century tuning context. Yet, this factor has been neglected in all releases thus far, so there's no real reason to hold this ensemble particularly accountable for it....) On the other hand, there's great attention to detail here, even as that detail is (once again) refracted through later perspectives, and so "a lot of music" — much of which hasn't been recorded recently. (I appreciate just getting the notes & rhythms together, and laying that out clearly in performance, at least.... Not that those basic issues are entirely separable from tuning, etc.) Attention to detail is reflected in the program discussion from Rice as well, particularly as he both considers arguments around authenticity for the works presented (including that of their added parts) & debates the process more generally. The choice of program was apparently motivated by variety (although he doesn't say), not the security of the sources then, with earlier works included as well (counter to style).... There's also not a lot of intimacy from this group, such that e.g. the tour-de-force Alma redemptoris mater / Ave regina caelorum comes off as relatively distant. Their Stabat Mater is then (aside from "bigness") so opposite to that recently reviewed from Cantica Symphonia... including the latest (added) voice part on the program here. (The Binchois reference is immediately buried to open, although more audible later as transformed....) I also have difficulty imagining Usquequo, Domine being by anyone but Josquin, while Huc me sydereo is a particularly impressive rendition here, including the wild sixth voice that might or might not be from Josquin himself.... (Mittit ad virginem could very easily be by Thérache to my ear, opening the program in another register....) There's thus a mix of famous & obscure pieces here, but also some powerful music. (Regarding the trade-offs with this performance style, I really enjoyed e.g. this group's La Rue... because the Missa Inviolata is a great piece that hadn't been recorded. But I didn't think much of their Obrecht disc, even though it also involved new music & similar attention to detail.... I.e. the repertory didn't call out to me individually there.) The ensemble can also sound a little tentative at times — relatively speaking anyway — but one might also attribute that to a generally balanced approach toward forward momentum.... Anyway, as Rice notes, despite some concerns, these pieces are all presented as authentic in the New Josquin Edition, underlying just how unlikely we are really to know exactly what is or isn't a part of his catalog. Even as the performance style isn't entirely what I'd like, not to mention the later orientation for sources, there's still a lot of important music here receiving its most coherent (revived, that is) rendition to date — making for a must-hear in this context.17 February 2021
I should probably also mention La la hö hö, a well-rendered program of c.1500 consort music from a newly discovered and/or noticed manuscript compiled for Jacob Fugger around 1533: Although the included discussion doesn't mention them specifically, the program appears to include e.g. previously unknown instrumental works by La Rue. Unfortunately, I was also unable to audition this album in full, as my digital download is corrupted, and I never got a reply from the label's customer service on this issue.... (Hopefully it's not a problem that'll recur for others...?) In any case, the relatively weighty program by the new-to-me Linarol Consort must be noted for its unique items.15 February 2021
Although I'm intending to keep up a general dialog around the Josquin anniversary & its releases, I don't want to start making perfunctory comments about everything that appears.... However, despite that it's actually outside the repertory I usually feature here, I feel as though I must mention the new Palestrina album by Beauty Farm — at least after I'd just mentioned here in December how their new Gombert double album further positioned the latter's music as a step toward Palestrina: This live release, not originating from their usual Mauerbach monastery sessions, thus seems like an obvious continuation of that work. It's a rather stark rendition of the arch-famous Missa Papae Marcelli, surrounded by plainchant. And the review download didn't come with liner notes, while the release has yet to appear at all on the Fra Bernardo site, so if there's something else particular to note about this rendition, I'm in the dark.... (I'm still not intending to feature Palestrina here, generally speaking. But there's already more Josquin on the immediate horizon....)4 February 2021
And as Josquin anniversary releases accelerate (& hopefully we're still near the start of that process...), of course they're going to include interpretations by various (perhaps more famous) ensembles known more for later music, although in some cases e.g. a sixteenth century orientation will overlap with Josquin's later output. (And I should emphasize the degree to which Josquin's music straddles eras in a technical sense, not only in terms of music publishing & modernity broadly in that sense, but also according to ongoing transitions in tuning: It's important to note that Pythagorean tuning & mean-tone are almost opposites, meaning that there's considerable sonic tension between the two. Although most interpretations of Josquin, if considering period tunings at all, tend to dive straight into the amply documented sixteenth century style around various instrumental transcriptions & so also mean-tone temperaments, recall that various Josquin pieces do still cadence on open fifths....) And it already seems to be a trend to sidestep issues of authorship entirely, continuing to record some of the catchier "hits" that have subsequently been questioned: Indeed all of these factors are wrapped into one package for Ensemble Clément Janequin's new Septiesme livre de chansons, based on Susato's 1545 publication. That's a retrospective collection devoted to Josquin a generation after his death, and tends to position the music in terms of the early madrigal, or especially the Parisian chanson. (It also sits contemporaneously to & is inclusive of various instrumental transcriptions for e.g. lute or keyboard... i.e. with their tuning implications.) So to back up for a moment, it's probably accurate to suggest that I first started calling for new attention to recording Josquin's secular music once the prior Visse interpretation started seeming dated: This new album isn't dated in terms of the development of their own performance style, but it certainly does keep to a 1540s orientation — if not actually subsequent to that, given the heavily doubled (suggesting continuo?) bass parts, etc. (A specific orientation on the Susato book, having the benefit of more modern notation etc., is also reflected by e.g. Se congie prens — already almost a nine year-old recording, and likewise featuring quite a lot of organ, although from a group with a more medieval orientation in general....) I guess what I'd really wanted, as I try to articulate that for myself now, is a program featuring Josquin's songs in the more classic style of Ockeghem & La Rue. Although Marc Lewon's program remains the most idiomatic & compelling for me overall (despite mixing in voices in kind of a jarring way that took a while to enjoy in a more relaxed setting...), that's also more of a nitty-gritty "instrumental variation" sort of perspective, such that the pure "courtly chanson" take still seems open to me.... (Maybe the main issue around such a project has really been that Josquin, absent the greater variety that ultimately seems to define his output, would suffer in comparison to e.g. Ockeghem & La Rue....) ECJ also does without the viols of their first program (generally in favor of organ), using a larger variety of voices, particularly doubled in the lowest registers (& producing a stiff or heavy sound). And e.g. the spinet sounds jarring to me here, although actually it's pleasant enough. Anyway, the point seems to be a lot of pretty singing, sighing lines, big/clear harmonies, a kind of nostalgic drama.... In other words, it's an enjoyable update with some stylistic differences from their first album (released more than 30 years ago now!), but doesn't break new ground in period technique or articulation. I.e. I don't feel as though I've learned anything about Josquin or his music from this release, but some of the tunes & figures surely do resonate: What's perhaps most notable is how well his music continues to respond to these different settings & orientations (including already in the sixteenth century...).31 January 2021
Beauty Farm embarked on their recording career with two double albums devoted to Gombert (motets), and now return for a new double album of Gombert Masses. This was after The Sound and the Fury had begun their discography with two Gombert albums as well, so someone around Mauerbach must be a serious Gombert fan. In fact, the liner notes for this issue — not to mention the interpretations themselves — go some way toward positioning Gombert's music as a sort of inflection point in the (musical) history from the earlier Franco-Flemish polyphony heading into the so-called Palestrina style: The continuous "flows" Gombert achieves — in terms of seemingly endless overlapping lines — turn into the sparser lines of the Palestrina generation once "preparation of dissonance" (not specifically mentioned in the notes) is injected into the conception... the inflection thus taking us from the "most dissonant" Franco-Flemish polyphony "straight" to the "least" (or rather, the canonical style). One might characterize this step into the Counter-Reformation as the final blurrings of analogism (cf. Descola) — & I suggest listening to Gombert's extensions as a sort of blur (i.e. into the later "uniform style").... And Gombert's masses do show us this inflection most clearly, particularly in this superb new reading, as they take the "flowing" style to greater lengths (although the more enigmatic "Coronation Mass" is in a more hybrid/older style...). That's how it ends up feeling, though, greater lengths: There are also two motets included in this set, and they're brilliant pieces, but e.g. the Missa Media vita seems much like a thrashing out of the stunning motet Media vita... a ponderous, ongoing dilution, if I may. Not that these masses are unappealing, but they're basically elaborations of the jewels of the motets, without many new ideas. This release also suggests a new start for Beauty Farm, i.e. by returning to Gombert? On that count, I'd say this is their best rendition yet, with new editions prepared for them, and continuing attention to the recorded sound: I've tried not to get too involved with sound issues, but they can be a factor in this music, particularly in terms of balancing the directness of the voices with the haze of architectural resonance. And Beauty Farm's recordings have tweaked things along this continuum, perhaps moving to "too immediate" at times (although I still prefer that to the most distant, hazy renditions elsewhere...), but here they strike an excellent audio balance. Everything comes off that much more confidently too, clearly articulated & well-paced. The result might even be described as sensual. And so I very much hope that they bring these resources to a Josquin anniversary project....22 December 2020
Before I turn to another Josquin release, I want to note the recent Song of Beasts by Ensemble Dragma. This is "another" enjoyable anthology spanning the c.1400 era of secular songs, i.e. around the Ars Subtilior, but including both some earlier & (maybe) later music. In that sense, I rarely know how to react to these releases, in the sense that the program includes a mix of various greatest hits & some lesser known material — in this case, oriented toward more virtuosic items in parallel with its invocation (or imitation) of various animals. The virtuosity is fitting here, as I'd already featured Marc Lewon on lute in various (mostly somewhat later) repertory, and he's one of the best today. Vocalist Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett has also appeared on various programs (e.g. relatively recently on Con voce quasi humana), and is one of a new generation of vocalists who likewise continue to develop an idiomatic medieval style. (The other member of the trio, Jane Achtman, also appears on many albums to good effect, although is usually less specifically noticeable.) Thus, this is a new generation of virtuosic & idiomatic medieval performance: That performance practice continues to improve is one of the basic facts of the medieval discography, and particularly in this Ars Subtilior-esque repertory (& Ars Nova in general), such performance practice is becoming quite refined (particularly versus a couple of decades ago, when it was still embryonic).... Then as far as evaluating these albums, I'm kind of left with the program, and what I want to hear for a program: This is a part where I struggle here sometimes, including to learn about new items (& I've surely groused about this too much already...) — especially anthologies, because if an album appears with a composer, it can be much easier to pick out of a long & largely undifferentiated list — but also to choose "better" programs among what is really a juggling of dozens of similar songs. And I'm not sure how useful my remarks in that area are getting to be — i.e. when there isn't a larger piece dominating a program — as I've habituated over the years to evaluating albums as a whole. (This is of course how the industry has been oriented in general....) I still tend to listen to an album-length program when I'm in the mood, rather than individual songs, but constructing a program from the latter becomes increasingly practical in the world of digital downloads. So should I be reviewing individual tracks? I guess I feel as though I've spent so much time NOT doing that, that it'd be awkward to start. (Maybe it's too late?) But I do want to think about how to make these reviews more worthwhile. Anyway, all that said, Song of Beasts is fairly "typical" in that it presents an advance in technique, and does so with an increasingly idiomatic feel, but around well-known music, where a new interpretation is of only incremental value & within an arbitrary thematic program.... (And to be clear, I'm offering no real criticism of that basic practical dynamic, but rather questioning how I should respond...).
Of course, I feel differently about music that's never had a very good rendition on record — but as noted, I still feel a need to praise "progress" in that area, as obviously it's taking various incremental steps (of familiarization, etc.) — & that still applies to much of c.1500 music & even to the output of a towering figure like Josquin.... Continuing that anniversary project then, I want to note Inviolata, a program of lute transcriptions of motets performed by Jacob Heringman. The recordings are undated, and presumably Heringman spent a period of time recording this project, some of which consists of intabulations from the sixteenth century, but some is also Heringman's own work of transcription, including e.g. famous motets also appearing on the recent Cantica Symphonia disc. Transcriptions & performance are very well done, very precise, and moving beyond some of the constraints of Josquin's own instrumental music.... Clarity of conception & articulation are outstanding. But I've also never been that into the sixteenth century lute repertory.... Still, Inviolata includes a valuable perspective on some of Josquin's most famous motets, once again illustrating the decisive move into modern tunings & style, feeling like something of a linearization of the material (i.e. blunting some of the vertical pull), thus suggesting extension & in turn sequences of "points of imitation" (per my recent discussion of Ockeghem chansons here...), as the style developed into the modern era. We'll see what else appears....5 December 2020
Following already on the heels of the final Tallis Scholars installment is an Italian-themed program from Cantica Symphonia. Josquin's connection to Milan has been alternately one of the clearest parts of his biography & mostly fictitious (& at least in these entries, I'm intending to focus on the recorded music per se), but also obviously continues to inspire as a program.... There's his connection to Ferrara too, of course (per the Herclues Mass of the previous entry). It all gives Giuseppe Maletto & colleagues an opportunity to justify a big ensemble with instrumental support — in a mode similar to their lavish Dufay interpretations — for the opening Stabat mater: I haven't generally appreciated such big productions, but it's worked in their Dufay, and it works here. It's a great piece, and every detail is strongly articulated across a broadly colorful tapestry.... Most of the program is actually performed by smaller forces, though, especially the lengthy Vultum tuum... cycle (performed one to a part), which continues to be popular with singers. Presumably that's because it's easy to sing, with short easy phrases & some embryonic word painting (suggestive of e.g. Brumel), but it's not a cycle that's ever really sustained my attention (probably for similar reasons), and it's the main item on the program here.... The iconic Ave Maria, probably the most popular composition of its era, is given a quality reading with two voices to a part. While the rendition of the famous 5-part Salve Regina (another ostinato-based piece, and another summit) employs a couple of horns together as sustaining tenor amid an otherwise single voice texture... that's a less successful choice. The punchy, concluding Nimphes napées likewise involves a big, mixed ensemble, and could benefit from more (conceptual) attention to intonation.... Ecce tu pulchra (a4) & Benedicta es (a6) are probably the highlights though — after the exciting reading of the well-known Stabat Mater (which, note, does unusually evoke music of two generations prior in its Binchois citation...) — in terms of advancing the Josquin discography... the six-part motet in particular sometimes ends up a bit unbalanced whether vertically or horizontally, but it's still a worthwhile effort on a great but sometimes unwieldy piece... especially when I have no real idea what will be coming over the next year. Finally, the handful of short instrumental tracks are enjoyable, played with elegance & flair, but don't really render anything new. This program doesn't thrill me as a whole, but some of its tracks do immediately become some of the best Josquin motet interpretations on record. (For now? I guess I'm never satisfied....) And at times it's an exuberant & extroverted program, while at others it seems more intimate: It certainly does exhibit some of Josquin's characteristic chameleon quality across its various presentation styles, though.17 November 2020
I guess there are plenty of distractions in the world at the moment, but it was only recently that I "noticed" that next year is a major Josquin anniversary! I saw one release announced, then another, thinking it was a coincidence, then a couple more &... wait a minute. Anyway, this seems like an event that I need to cover in this space, especially since I've generally been frustrated with the Josquin discography to this point. Maybe next year it'll be transformed for the better.... I'm consequently going to freeze that section of my "personal list" for a while, with the further hope that there'll be a surplus of fine items from which to choose, and why choose too soon? I'll review items here as they arrive, though, with an eventual update on "favorites" at some point.... The 500th anniversary of his death also provides an impetus to take stock of the Josquin biography, and that remains vague: Much like Shakespeare, maybe people will never learn a satisfying amount about the man's life, and indeed the various musical masterpieces in a variety of styles suggest a chameleon-like personality (or even a pseudonym for multiple authors, although I'm not making that suggestion seriously). And for the most part, Josquin didn't write a series of great works in a particular idiom, but rather a large set of "isolated" great works (many with lesser companions) across a range of styles. That's perhaps most true of the motets, where Josquin practically defined a new stylistic range based on text & context, such that his masterpieces sound unique, but of the masses as well, with the several mature masterpieces being rather different from each other. But what continues to amaze is that Josquin interpretations have been lagging those of his contemporaries for compelling quality for some time now: There are no notable programs of motets, for instance, with updated technical interpretations (except, perhaps, those just now appearing), although there are (finally!) a couple of very different (& rather idiosyncratic) secular discs (coalescing around organ & lute respectively), and really only one compelling series of mass cycles....
And The Tallis Scholars have now released the last album in that cycle, the ninth, bringing the total to eighteen masses. Leaving aside (problematic) notions of a canonical list, the series is also basically in two parts, with the two albums from the 1980s (which I'd expected they'd re-record, but apparently they won't...) being of no real value. The other seven, though, include a variety of top flight material — usually with one masterpiece paired with a more forgettable cycle. This latest issue is no exception to that, as The Tallis Scholars turn out a sparkling & energetic rendition of Josquin's ostinato showpiece cycle, Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae: This is an extrovert tour-de-force & seems almost made for the group. (Of course, this latest issue continues maddening choices like refraining from documenting the recording dates & dividing each mass into an unwieldy number of tracks.... The former is truly nonsense for a group that obviously wants to be taken quite seriously. I can only conclude that the last few items in this series were recorded years ago, and held for release over a period of time... but I have no real info.) Anyway, I wouldn't characterize the Herclues Mass as being among Josquin's most profound, but it's masterful contrapuntally & a major entry in the "ostinato mass" category, one that e.g. La Rue would take up more regularly. And Josquin also wrote Missa Faysant regretz on a very short & insistent ostinato, making for a distinctive but less satisfying cycle: The rendering of the short motive into sequential climaxes suggests Obrecht at times, and of course the ostinato suggests Hercules, but the severity of the basic material also comes to suggest something of the Missa Mater patris (from the previous Tallis Scholars program, numbered higher than this one, suggesting they wanted to end with a showpiece...) — the latter being the more mature elaboration (& a cycle that seems to be growing on me now, despite dismissing it years ago...). One might even note e.g. nascent madrigalisms or relate this thread of "insistence" in Josquin's output to e.g. Faulte d'argent.... (None of the masses on this last disc seem particularly transformative, in fact, even if one ends up being a stylistic exhibition....) The other item — on what is the only three mass program in the series — is then the Missa D'ung aultre amer, which replaces the benedictus with the motet Tu solus & on this program even involves singing the Ockeghem song. And although I've generally been content with technical choices by the Tallis Scholars in the last seven entries in their Josquin series, they do often lack detailed consideration, and basically opt for a consistent overview sort of approach. In the case of the Missa D'ung aultre amer, though, tuning considerations come more to the fore, such that sections of this short mass suggest ambiguities between Pythagorean (as would have been normal for Ockeghem) & mean-tone (as was becoming more common in Josquin's lifetime), a "historical" sort of tuning clash ignored by this rendering.... (Per prior comments around tuning in recent Ockeghem chanson projects, this mass then presumably gives an opportunity for a more detailed look at these tuning transitions & how they're sometimes handled ambivalently in music — not so unlike Ockeghem's music simultaneously suggesting multiple modalities....) So that's not an investigation for which one would turn to the Tallis Scholars, who take more of a high level view of "Renaissance music" in the first place (i.e. downplaying or eliding the medieval transition from the start...). But the interpretations here, and generally since this series resumed in 2008 with the Missa Sine nomine, have been striking & energetic & with a good sense of the overall characteristics of the masses. It's unfortunate that the first two programs weren't redone, but the rest make for a solid "backbone" of major mass interpretations heading into 2021: Maybe several will still be my favorites in a year, maybe not, but mostly I'm hoping for more attention to the motets & various other unilluminated corners. We'll see. It's time to transform the Josquin discography, and I'd be happy to view the Tallis Scholars series as the last of its prehistory(!).16 November 2020
Releases tend to come in bursts in this area, but even after all these years, I have to note surprise in seeing a second Ockeghem Complete Songs production come not only so closely on the heels of the first (in decades), but at both having been recorded in Massachusetts mostly in 2018.... I'm still partial to the approach taken by Blue Heron, whose second volume is due to be released in 2022, but that by Cut Circle is impressive in its own way: For one thing, the latter is already complete — albeit with a tentatively attributed item slated to appear on a future, more general program of anonymous songs (that also sounds welcome) — while hopefully the virus situation won't derail the former. (Glancing at their web site in preparation for these comments suggests that Blue Heron is still in business....) And Scott Metcalfe's approach for Blue Heron does involve some instruments at times, although virtually no doubling, and with the vast majority of parts (at least so far) performed by a changing selection of voices, while that by Jesse Rodin for Cut Circle is entirely vocal. The latter comes off a little dogmatically, despite the disclaimer to that end, but is certainly worthwhile, particularly as it's conceived with all voices singing the texts at all times (rather than the simple vowels that some groups use). More significantly among the differences, though, even as it's not specifically discussed in the accompanying materials, is tuning: Cut Circle is tuned in mean-tone, and always sounds grating to me when their album starts, but I warm up to it with exposure.... Actually, their tuning is very good, very precise... which seems kind of odd to hear for mean-tone vocal music, but I can pretend I'm listening to the Buxheimer Orgelbuch sometimes.... So what should it be? I find the sort of post-Pythagorean tuning by Blue Heron truly buoyant in comparison, with a lively rhythmic quality that emerges from the more incisive cadential phrasing. In contrast, Cut Circle sounds more like later music, with phrasing a bit more blunted at times, the music generally more extended & ponderous... suggesting those "points of imitation" that would become so ubiquitous. It's a quality interpretation, though, and clearly projects a more future-oriented vision of Ockeghem, although note that cadences in thirds wouldn't even be definitive yet for Josquin.... It's a kind of 16th century vision of Ockeghem, but his music does hold up to it: Obviously as the Buxheimer remark suggested, mean-tone was not unknown in this period, and even as a prestigious composer of polyphony like Ockeghem presumably thought in the older technical context, his music works remarkably well this way. (That's unlike, say, some of Dufay's music which totally falls apart outside of a Pythagorean scheme — even as some was also successfully adapted for new contexts. One might also consider Ockeghem's works created to be sung in more than one mode: Perhaps that's analogous, and it wouldn't surprise me if tuning ambiguities were consciously considered too....) And actually, the songs performed in a coarser or more rustic manner are the strength of this interpretation (perhaps ironically, evoking the later Parisian chanson at times?) — so it would then probably be worthwhile to figure out exactly which songs sound most idiomatic in mean-tone (although I haven't attempted any such specific tracking to this point myself). Anyway, I hope that this release also signals that neglect of 15th century chansons will be receding into the past more generally....16 October 2020
Firenze 1350 is the fourth album from the young Sollazzo Ensemble, and to avoid any pretense of suspense here, it was also added to my personal list. Since winning a recording contract, Sollazzo Ensemble has drawn quite a bit of attention, with this latest album having been visited here at the FAQ more than most before I could get to this write-up.... Yet their first album was released only in 2017, even as it seems much longer ago now (& indeed their previous, Leuven Chansonnier Vol. 1, is still on the "recently issued" list here...). And while their performances had been appealing, including as exemplifying the next generation of conservatory technique, the programs have generally been of the motley sort, and so haven't really grabbed me in terms of exploring repertory (as opposed to refining technique). When it comes to this "medieval Florentine garden" though, most programs continue to involve a variety of composers & sources anyway, and so a mixed program seems normal — & in this case, actually more focused than most of their previous releases (which have been thematic). And even the sacred tracks bring something compelling here, seeming to fit right into the program as a whole.... Of course, another factor around this particular album is that director Anna Danilevskaia had already appeared (albeit on only one track) with Ensemble Syntagma — led by Alexandre Danilevski — on their two Trecento albums (which still seem relatively recent, but are actually from 2008 & 2011), along with (sister?) Sophia, who has appeared on all three. So there's a specific history, and Sollazzo builds on that history, becoming both less idiosyncratic (as e.g. there's a carillon track on Rosa e Orticha), as well as more precise & expressive — including via better sound engineering. There's less cumbersome orchestration, with variety arising more organically from the ensemble... & generally a greater command & sophistication emerging with time & attention, as one would expect (or at least hope). The result makes a strong opening impression, even as the breakneck voices become a little choppy keeping the rhythm in the showy first track, cadencing magnificently into the following instrumental.... There is nothing stiff here, and the ensemble's handling of mensuration is also exemplary, allowing lines to regain their own sense of space, especially in moments of repose: It's not a raucous performance, but rather a charged & colorful one, bringing a potent expressiveness to a repertory that appears relatively often — in general — on record, but never systematically. (And perhaps it's about time for that latter point to change.)21 April 2020
I'm not sure that there's really much to say about the new recording of Ortiz's Trattado de Glosas beyond that I'm adding it to my personal list to replace the Savall classic, but perhaps a few additional thoughts.... Of course, although the lists include some rather old recordings, especially as the years continue to sail by, they're meant to be updated with new interpretations — particularly since performance continues to advance in this repertory, and on many fronts. That the Savall recording remained in place for so long is definitely a testament to its stature, expressed in part by the fact that another musician hadn't chosen to duplicate it. It'd also started to feel dated, both in technique & sound, and so the new program is clearly superior in those "objective" ways (& indeed learns so much from Savall). But then, the sense of exploration, even struggle, in that classic rendition becomes an expressive factor of its own... although perhaps coming to seem uniformly languid at times. The new interpretation, in contrast, seems totally in command right from the opening stroke, tautly energetic & lyrically effusive. It's thus the next generation for both technique & expression — making for a clear choice, both more lively & more delicate. And so why Ortiz? This is one of those unique sets of pieces, perhaps with an academic intent one might say, that does continue to stand out for me within a wealth of sixteenth century instrumental development, in part because of its novel textures around solo viol with contrapuntal accompaniment, but also for its sophisticated contrapuntal-melodic analysis, shining through in sound after all these years.20 April 2020
As I anticipate (perhaps?) some other Spring releases on which to remark, I do want to note the recent Two Lutes with Grace (Grace being the name of the vocalist who appears on five tracks of this actually quite literally named album): In some ways, this is a followup program to Lewon's previous Straight from the Heart, although the music is centered a short while later. In particular, while the former also includes later transcriptions — & an unusual (for its situation more than its music) Duo by two known composers — it continues to advance plectrum lute technique. Recorded only four years later, and after interpretations about which I'd already specifically noted advances in instrumental technique, it does so notably yet again, yielding what appears to be a very idiomatic rendering of this relatively secondary music. (Although such ideas on lute rendering would obtain increased currency in the sixteenth century, that would come to be without the plectrum....)16 March 2020
The Beauty Farm project continues apace with a new Ockeghem double album, and to remove any suspense, I did add it to my personal list: In fact, the discussion there quotes the prior discussion of the Sound and the Fury's Johannes Ockeghem 2, which ended up being the most read entry over in the "cdc" listings. In particular, I discussed my view of the vocal interpretation, the approach to ensemble tuning, etc., and why I (greatly) prefer it to the more "ethereal" versions featuring meek singing & alignment focused on the highest registers. Of course, Beauty Farm continues the same priorities, and is consequently even more committed to that approach — if perhaps their voices end up sounding a little more "professional." In any case, that digression into my past comments aside, the first disc of the new double album duplicates that prior program, and does so with even more energy & sophistication. (The Beauty Farm version is about ten percent faster, in factual terms.) In this, they continue the tradition of their own prior Ockeghem program (which ends up being their only single CD album to date, actually) — still a superlative performance — & even go on to duplicate much of the next SATF Ockeghem program with a newly sophisticated take on the Missa Cuiusvis toni. The latter is paired, finally, with the early Missa Caput, which although not a major feature of the double program for me, is also given a strong interpretation. And as noted in the paired discussion, the Missa My My of the first disc remains one of Ockeghem's most striking cycles, here in a particularly striking interpretation as well, while the Missa Ecce ancilla Domini is one of his most satisfying "traditional" cantus firmus masses. At times, Beauty Farm seems noisier or "grittier" than SATF, particularly in the lower parts, but while part of that is improved articulation, part of it relates to recording balance & resonance. And although I hadn't talked much about recording quality until recently, experience with contemporary repertory has let me hear how much the newer technology can improve clarity, something that still seems to be in flux when it comes to engineering these resonant church settings: So here the greater sense of space is welcome, but the resonance is also a bit much (i.e. hazy) at times. (It's also amazing that the SATF program being reprised was recorded nearly ten years ago. Time flies.) While the notes go on to discuss the Phrygian mode (around not only Missa My My & Missa Cuiusvis toni, but the model chanson Presque trainsi as well), they also make a quality attempt to locate these cycles within Ockeghem's output as a whole. (One thing they don't discuss is his five-voice cycles — & how these also elaborate new techniques while pointing to the future....) So that's welcome, and I might also note e.g. how abruptly some of these cycles seem to end, particularly as compared to e.g. Josquin's carefully prepared climactic endings in the next generation. Comparatively, Ockeghem's music simply seems to run its (lyrical) course — & one can even come to appreciate why a handful of his cycles end with the Credo.... So is there such a thing as "a great interpretation" in this repertory? For years, it seemed like we were struggling just to understand the notes & rhythms, let alone the overall flow of the pieces, but things do continue to develop. I still find myself regularly preferring the latest releases, as understanding & command continue to improve, but perhaps that changes at some point? It seems that I continue to feel, so often, that another group has achieved a new standard.... (And if some of Ockeghem's masses "resist categorization" for their "experimental" qualities, it stands to reason that they would be among the last to receive their due today.... Yet, I suppose that situation is also countered by the relative frequency of these re-readings.) These interpretations are indeed following other quality interpretations, though, and so I should note that although I came to prefer them, they didn't necessarily jump out with a huge first impression, but rather created a stronger sense of the music over time. And that seems more typical of a more mature performance repertory.... Finally, perhaps I should say something about the delay in discussing this album: When I first learned of its release, it was marked for December, and so I didn't check back until last month (& wanted to avoid holiday-time shipping if I could), but it turned out that it was released in October & so I could have done this write-up a while ago.... As it is, then, there were "only" four albums added to my personal list for 2019, with this being the most impressive (if I'm tempted to reprise the Record of the Year after a hiatus...), and with (coincidentally, I guess) the other Ockeghem release being particularly valuable (although "incomplete," e.g. no Presque trainsi, until its pending second volume appears) as well. So I guess this was an "Ockeghem Year," for some reason. As far as criticism, I'm also really getting tired of these covers, boring pictures of models against garish backgrounds... but I suppose they're easy to spot.8 January 2020
The new album in the Tallis Scholars' Josquin cycle actually begins with Brumel — to recall the previous entry — & indeed a similarly "danceable" & motivic piece in Mater Patris: Their performance of this short motet is less lively or taut than those by Musica Secreta, but it does set the stage for a quality performance of Josquin's parody mass on this piece. I'd actually forgotten about the Missa Mater Patris, since I'd long ago accepted suggestions that it was stylistically incongruous, and thus not by Josquin. However, more recently, e.g. in considerations around the Missa Quem dicunt homines, I've come to realize & appreciate (i.e. believe) that incongruity could actually define much of Josquin's late mass writing, in that experimenting with different styles apparently appealed to him. Peter Phillips actually spends very little time making an argument that the mass is by Josquin, merely noting that some had suggested otherwise, and indeed, who else might have written this? That said, it's also completely different from so much of his music, taking the repetitive motivic style to an extreme, or as Phillips says, "paring down a highly developed method." I can't say as I really enjoy the result, but it's distinctive — & that much more severe than what Brumel himself undertook. (One might analogize the sacred austerity of Missa Pange lingua, a cycle that could really use an updated interpretation, to a sort of "secular austerity" in Missa Mater Patris, with their differing configurations of simplicity....) Phillips goes on to make more curious remarks about the paired Missa Da pacem, as having been attributed to Bauldeweyn (after a history of being admired as a work by Josquin), even suggesting that perhaps the cycle is a dual composition because, while some of the passages are not very interesting (to Phillips anyway), some are just too good to be by Bauldeweyn! I find this to be an outrageous suggestion, as if Bauldeweyn was simply incapable of writing good music (which I'd very much dispute based on the revelatory Beauty Farm double album that I continue to hear often), but also as if Josquin basically defines good music for the period. I suppose that the latter is a historical position, but also seems like patent nonsense that Phillips ought to be able to resist... I guess he's fallen under the spell of deification. (Or perhaps the suggestion is actually whimsical, simply a way to argue for continuing attention to the piece?) Anyway, the Missa Da pacem is definitely more directly enjoyable for me, although not as appealing as some of Bauldeweyn's other settings. Both interpretations are well done, especially (perhaps ironically) the second, as the Tallis Scholars continue to improve their command, year after year. (And once again, we have no idea when these recordings were made, as documentary information of the sort is totally & outrageously neglected. There are also far too many track breaks, making the album a real hassle to use. It seems almost hostile.) The first mass performance could probably be more aggressive & lively.... Still, as performances of c.1500 mass cycles go, these are among the best. I'm just not that excited by the resulting music (particularly given Phillips' condescension toward Bauldeweyn). Anyway, if previous comments are to be believed, there's only one planned issue remaining in this cycle: I won't try to guess what it might contain, as this program was already something of a surprise....21 November 2019
Another new musical discovery from the era (returning to last week's entry on the Leuven Chansonnier as a touchstone) is the complete Lamentations by Brumel, which musicologist Laurie Stras apparently stumbled upon recently in a library in Italy. Stras is associated with the ensemble Musica Secreta, which I remember from e.g. their Luzzaschi program of almost twenty years ago, but they've remained active, mostly around Renaissance or Baroque repertory associated with women & in Italy. Their new program, focusing on c.1500 Franco-Flemish polyphony, From Darkness Into Light, thus seems like something of a departure, although it also concerns Italian sources. In fact, the interpretations of these works are appealing, projecting an almost Italianate lightness that can seem dance-like at times, yet rejecting an "angelic" sort of vocal presentation. (And note that any potential incongruity between lamenting & dancing is answered by various traditional funerary dances around the world. It's not that human movement is antithetical to mourning, then, but about the sort of movement involved....) There's also support for lower parts from the organ, but this doesn't interfere with textural clarity. And while the other brief pieces have their interest, the impetus for the album was obviously the Brumel, which had previously existed in only a much shorter version: These Lamentations appear to herald the upcoming Italian madrigal, forging a "sacred drama" presented in "acts" rather than a liturgy oriented on ritual performativity. The result thus continues to mark Brumel as anticipating later developments, here in a highly motivic proto-"operatic" sort of work (that could be seen as completely refiguring the medieval passion play — although Brumel probably never knew such music). And although the glimpse (& accomplishment) of later sixteenth century style here isn't a priority for me, there's little doubt that this signature work can become relatively popular, particularly among people who value notions of "Renaissance" far more than they do the pre-modern per se.... Whereas Brumel already had such a reputation, it's perhaps (now) most strongly illustrated by this impressive cycle.20 November 2019
Evidently I couldn't help but foreshadow Blue Heron's new Ockeghem: Complete Songs Volume 1 in the previous entry, and I'm indeed excited: It's about time not only that someone revisited more of these classic outputs in a systematic way, but also that works beyond mass cycles come back into vogue for larger recording projects. In particular, Blue Heron is rather self-consciously issuing a followup to the classic set by Medieval Ensemble of London from the early 1980s: It's surely that ensemble's most impressive release — not as lengthy as their complete Dufay, but rather more accomplished, both in terms of selecting the program & performing the songs. In fact, Scott Metcalfe & Blue Heron follow many of the same stylistic choices, and the aura of that older interpretation continues to shine through on this new set, in spite or (perhaps) because of its ongoing refinement of materials & technique. The set itself emerges from Blue Heron's "Ockeghem @ 600" project, which includes a variety of concerts, including of the masses, but has announced only this double recording issue — with Volume 2 (whose cover already appears in the booklet of Volume 1) announced for 2022, at the close of the Ockeghem project. I guess that means we'll have to wait, and I don't know if other recordings are actually planned, but the first is tantalizing: Although I'd associated Blue Heron with larger choral works, and there are indeed many people involved in this production, each song is handled intimately, with individual singers selected accordingly. (In fact, the only doubling on the disc occurs, to good effect, in the lowest part of Petite camusette.) The sound of the bray harp, the main accompanying instrument here, is also handled carefully (as analogized to e.g. bray lute mentioned here recently), and indeed care seems to be the watch word: The music & interpretations are full of restraint, such that if anything, one could criticize the performance for lacking ecstasy. I'm not complaining, though, as the attention to detail is remarkable, all the way from the rhythms of the smallest phrases to large scale forms & ensemble timbres & colors.... The style isn't innovative — rather it involves taking the time to pursue every question around a complete set & its precise articulation. (A new musical edition of the songs is also in preparation....) It's thus at a different level of accomplishment than many of the items featured here, i.e. that are bringing repertory back into sound in a more provisional way, and was added to my personal list, displacing the classic set in anticipation of the second volume. That it doesn't seem "very new" tempers my excitement a bit, but this is a very accomplished & thorough presentation of some of the best music of the mid-15th century. And being able to admire recorded interpretations that don't seem particularly innovative seems like a welcome marker of maturity for this repertory (& it's been hard won).19 November 2019
I'm expecting a handful of new items of interest to arrive within the next month or so, and hopefully there'll be both some newly discovered or imagined music & some new ideas to articulate here. In the meantime, I do want to note the recent Leuven Chansonnier release: This manuscript, containing 50 songs, including well-known examples by famous composers such as Ockeghem, but also 12 unica not found elsewhere, was only discovered in 2015. Its previously unknown items are, of course, the most intriguing — & may eventually be attributed — but overall, the manuscript contains polyphonic secular music typical of its era. The album is also subtitled "Volume 1" although it doesn't mention future issues specifically (& these might be performed by different ensembles, as concerts debuting the material from the manuscript apparently had been). The (initial?) release of 14 items is by Ensemble Sollazzo, then, whom I see I hadn't really featured here: Their previous albums consisted of a selection of Ars Nova repertory, and were enjoyable enough while being unremarkable for their programs (& seemed to be discussed sufficiently elsewhere, where the interpretations did generate some enthusiasm). Leuven Chansonnier likewise involves a quality performance, although I'd also characterize it as a bit stiff and operatic-modern in its vocals, while (correspondingly) engaging in more doubling than I might prefer. The repertory itself might be said to occupy an intermediate position between more famous sources, e.g. Chansonnier Cordiforme & Grand Chansonnier of Margaret of Austria — less striking, but generally enjoyable.... Ultimately, it's good to see renewed interest in the fifteenth century chanson, with at least one more upcoming release (including a new item from Leuven, as it happens) & corresponding discussion to be devoted to that repertory as well....12 November 2019
The remarks made while adding the new Ensemble Gilles Binchois album to my personal list already express much of what I'd otherwise say here, but I do want to note a few things (more) concretely: For one, it took months for this album to make its way to me. I'm not loving the direction of music retail lately, that's for sure.... (I suppose that, among the world's various wars — of the "trade" variety & otherwise — & intensifying persecutions, the ability to receive recordings promptly from European media companies is among the least important issues, but it's still what makes this particular project possible....) It's also worth noting that, to this point, Vellard had recorded very little from the Ars Nova: He'd recorded a wide variety of earlier material, both of the polyphonic & (various) monophonic sorts, and then again with the generation of Dufay & Binchois, and further into a rather idiosyncratic selection of often much later music, but little from the Ars Nova beyond Machaut specifically. (Of course, his series of Machaut recordings — now decades old — continue to be represented on my favorites list, so I've actually enjoyed his work with the Ars Nova going back to the 1980s....) That seems curious now that I've really noticed, but this latest recording (devoted to Barcelona & Apt masses) also seems to follow the inspiration & logic of the previous album of Ars Antiqua selections closely, making for a parallel Ars Nova anthology: Given its wonderful interpretive command — superbly flexible, yet emphatic phrasing from both voices & instruments (when used) — such a parallel opportunity seems particularly worthwhile. And the individual pieces aren't necessarily selected for their technical brilliance, but do illustrate & articulate an era of sacred music rather well, and indeed serve to provide much continuity with Vellard's various plainchant explorations, not only from the earlier era, but extending to many out-of-the-way survivals from modern times. This program & interpretation are thus both incredibly detailed & part of a "long view." E.g. the exotic intervals for which Apt et al. are known come to sound quite right in this context....6 October 2019
I feel as though I should make some brief remarks regarding the recent O Rosa Bella program recorded in Italy by a couple of previously unknown ensembles (but including a few familiar names): Gilles Joye hadn't registered with me, but his work dates to decades that are central to my interests, and the monothematic program is generally enjoyable (including e.g. one of the strangest Ockeghem attributions in that composer's catalog). The performances employ large ensembles with doubling, as was common in Italy in the period (& as I've enjoyed e.g. for Dufay's more festive music), and are generally animated & forceful. As far as the Mass itself, it's a strange three-part piece, with the Kyrie as its longest movement, and e.g. the Credo in a simple cantilena style.... The comments in the notes seem ambiguous to me, so I'm not sure if they're suggesting that Joye wrote only this "O Rosa Bella" cycle or all three in the Trent Codices. Clemencic had recorded the four-part setting, a more solid piece.... (And some other items have been quite slow to make their way to me....)5 September 2019
To conclude a short series of discussions of a small flurry of recent releases, a recent duo recording of Josquin songs moves not only to somewhat later music (i.e. later fifteenth century and into the early sixteenth), but evokes another doubly retrospective view by engaging both later sixteenth century practice as well as the 1980s discography — in an eerie parallel to the new motet disc discussed here late last year: Perhaps it's too easy for me to link this sort of shift in perspective specifically to simultaneous shifts in what one is presented by search engines (no doubt in part around international politics & its "fake news" notions), but this sort of production does seem to be another bow toward more conservative (i.e. classical) audiences & their modern (in the broad historical sense) orientation. Before I get too embroiled in that topic, though, I do want to note that arranging Josquin's secular music for a single voice & single lute (or, in some cases, lute solo) is a perfectly sensible thing to do: It wasn't the orientation of Josquin's milieu, but it was to become a dominant musical idiom during the sixteenth century, including via many contemporary adaptations of Josquin's work (specifically), and leading into the "new monody" as one fount of the baroque (i.e. the "first global imperial" era). (Prior to the new monody per se, the frottola took a similar approach to highlighting the solo voice via — most often lute — accompaniment, and various instrumentalists were creating tablatures of both polyphonic music & various diminutions, etc....) So in that sense, the recent Adieu mes amours is indeed a sort of historically based production — but based in the period following Josquin: In this, sonorities are carefully considered, and instruments were built with appealing & detailed timbres, including a "bray lute" with buzzing resonators based on earlier harps, which appears (to good effect) on some tracks. The baritone voice is more rounded than I'd often prefer from medieval singers, more in keeping with a baroque aesthetic, i.e. with a more individual self-consciousness that the notes characterize as the "art of singing." In other words, although not in any way strident, the notes take on a similar tone to that on the prior motet disc (which likewise seems more naïve than strident), in that although they note uncertainties regarding Josquin's biography & output (especially in the secular music in the latter case), the sketch doesn't involve recent scholarship, but instead tends simply to repeat what was said decades ago. Moreover, there is a universalizing tendency at work in the notion of "composer" the notes construct, and especially in remarks on "actual art." It's thus another retro view, but also one that seeks both to exclude earlier (i.e. medieval) music from the (modern) category of "art" (& implicitly to elevate painting), and to assimilate Josquin more fully to the modern regime: Curiously, notions of Renaissance aren't actually articulated, but the perspective is similarly one of anticipating later modernity. And in another strange parallel, the album isn't only a later sixteenth century-based approach to Josquin — incorporating e.g. the sorts of ornaments & rhythmic interpolations that he specifically decried in his own era — but adopts the title of another 1980s Harmonia Mundi album that likewise served as an early recommendation here.... (So again, it seems almost like an attempt to make three decades of medieval music scholarship vanish into a new sea of conservatism & reorientation on universalist empire....) And indeed, I've been talking about Josquin secular discs in this space for a while, with a couple of others that I find more valuable... actually also involving later music as well! The "chapel" style album of five- & six-part music takes a rather heavy-handed approach via vocal doubling, and includes some later organ music by other composers (elaborating Josquin's material). And the more broadly instrumentally oriented program likewise includes some later lute music (plus a short c.2000 piece, with concerns different from those of this discussion) — as well as develops plucked string technique in general. (The latter does also include many tracks with a smaller instrumental ensemble, i.e. that don't involve intabulation, that I hear as nicely idiomatic for the period. The larger vocal renditions of Se congie prens likewise seem more overdone than significant stylistic departures in terms of rhythm, ficta, etc. I should probably also mention the recent Kaiser Maximilian I from an ensemble similar to that on Les fantaisies de Josquin, there in a simpler thematic program....) So why this sort of treatment for Josquin? Beyond any desire to assimilate the music to later styles & mentalities, it's also partly a matter of the uncertain contours of Josquin's output, and the many similar secular works distributed under his name, with no clear stylistic end point.... Or so I'll suggest. (Or is it more about the dated editions? That hasn't prevented new approaches here or elsewhere....) Meanwhile, people seem able to perform e.g. La Rue chansons with what seem like ensembles & techniques of the c.1500 period.... Anyway, beyond these broad considerations, I'd say that the result of this new Adieu mes amours production involves some tracks that work well, but that it never sounds much like Josquin. It's simply a more modern approach than his own. (And again, in the very limited sense of the latter statement, there's nothing inherently wrong with that: Inspiration is & can be multifaceted. A different sort of discussion would have been more welcome, though.)16 July 2019
Continuing the early fifteenth century orientation from the previous entry (now, on average, involving music a little earlier), but this time around Burgundian-Italian music, I also want to highlight the recent Johannes de Lymburgia program, Gaude felix Padua, by Le Miroir de Musique. It continues what has often been a basic Burgundian orientation for the group, including around Italian sojourns (& hence performance practice, mainly heard as instrumental doubling in these interpretations): In particular, only Latin music by Lymburgia has survived (& calling it "sacred" isn't quite in keeping with later designations, as it's not all liturgical), and so this program is rather different from the group's earlier album devoted to the de Lantins, which is secular (mostly in French, including some Italian & Latin items — but not the surviving liturgical music). Lymburgia had been illustrated on record only by an occasional short track elsewhere, and so this program reveals another distinctive, personal contrapuntal style (chronologically) between those of Ciconia & Dufay. (Besides the de Lantins, one might also compare e.g. to Brassart, who was apparently a somewhat younger contemporary: Perhaps he'll be subject of this group's next album? He & Lymburgia sometimes seem to collide in Buxheimer Orgelbuch style, if via the Codex Faenza in these interpretations....) The program also ranges from mass movements to laude-derived strophic songs, orienting on the composer's time in Italy. The quirky style in evidence here might not have had much subsequent influence, particularly with Dufay becoming such a dominating figure (not to mention the English input in the wake of the Hundred Years War), but it does help to elaborate (once again) the musical concerns of the era. The group's handling of the different genres is also quite deft, involving a sense of lightness when appropriate, and fine articulation in general. The pieces aren't all of the most striking individual merit (with the Magnificat being perhaps the most individually distinctive), but the result does end up being both enjoyable & broadly illuminating e.g. of Dufay's context.15 July 2019
Particularly since I used the previous volume largely to introduce a broader stylistic discussion of English-Continental oppositions (around the Ashwell disc from Graindelavoix), I want to give the third volume in the recent early fifteenth century English music series from the Binchois Consort, Music for Saint Katherine, its own entry: This is, once again, music from an intriguing era of musical change, performed according to up-to-date practice & by an ensemble with extensive experience in related repertory. (And I was delayed in making these remarks due to more changes in the music retail business....) It also continues a pairing of alabaster sculpture with music, now with a "sculptor in residence" involved: It's a curious choice for a multimedia program in 2019, i.e. photos accompanying a CD, but hey, why not? Music-wise, as noted in the brief previous mention here, continuing performances of Frye & Dunstaple highlight the major repertory involved, but these sorts of thematic programs also allow the inclusion of various stylistic oddball pieces from the era, which does help to illuminate the basic musical questions being considered at the time, i.e. beyond the larger outputs that came to involve more influence on subsequent generations. (My comment or question regarding the performances themselves actually involves sustain: I'm starting to get the impression that the voices are too active, and should be letting the resonances "hang in the air" a bit more, i.e. without forcing the vocal cords.) The Frye mass cycle here, also on the St. Katherine theme, hadn't been recorded previously, as far as I know, but they chose not to highlight that aspect: There have been a few single album productions devoted to Frye over the years, but no one has taken the plunge to record his entire output (which would fit on two CDs, if my calculations are correct), which I find kind of curious at this point. (Ciconia sports two complete 3CD editions, for instance.) Perhaps Frye's larger forms haven't been compelling enough for that, versus his popular shorter works, but one might compare his masses e.g. to those of Faugues in terms of basically elaborating song forms into longer movements.... More significantly, though (given his reputation), Dunstaple has even fewer dedicated programs from the CD era, and there's been little in the way of a systematic view of his output so far. Isn't it about time for a Complete Dunstaple? And how about a related program focusing on the late English isorhythmic motet per se? (But then, I guess I usually return to technical, rather than thematic, questions....)14 July 2019
Let me also take a moment to discuss a couple of other recent releases devoted to key 14th & 15th century repertory, even as my thoughts will be briefer & perhaps more ambivalent....
The new Orlando Consort album, titled simply Dufay, includes some of the more unusual secular unica in the great composer's output, but also comes off as a rather conservative production: In particular, although it moves decisively — as is the norm with this ensemble — to all-vocal renditions (& with one voice to a part), the group continues to use the Besseler-Fallows edition (1964/1995) of the songs, and even involves Fallows to provide the liner notes. These are interesting for some of their associations & discussions of the unique place of some of these songs, but also say little about the approach to performance. (What is considered is e.g. whether to take repeats, how to fill in missing material, etc. I.e., the basic sound & structure is taken for granted, making it a question of which verses....) In particular, the tuning here seems out of place to me from the opening, with strange passings & curious cadences, although it starts to seem a bit more idiomatic by the later part of the program (which is mostly later music). Such an impression is in sharp contrast to e.g. the recent The Dufay Spectacle from Gothic Voices, which might come off as relatively over-showy, and does include some bigger repertory & (sometimes overdone) instrumental doubling, but also provides a quite convincing sense of tuning & structure. Although it's partly due to specific repertory choices (as noted), that program is also more energetic, whereas the new Dufay comes off rather more subdued: In that, it recalls the same ensemble's Compère (where sound engineering is also an issue — seemingly worked out in the course of the group's Machaut Edition...), an album that seems quite valuable for its ongoing exploration of the later composer, but which often comes off as muddled & as a relatively random assortment. (There the similar tuning does seem more appropriate.) Maybe that album just needed more presence from the engineering to hear the lower voices better, but that Dufay takes such a conservative approach to performance style & sources is somewhat surprising. (The Machaut Edition is based on new, forthcoming editions.) And maybe this effort really revolves around an unstated insistence on later 15th century tuning principles, as they develop between Pythagorean & mean-tone.... Anyway, there are appealing moments — right from the beginning — and Dufay is always great, but I was disappointed by this project.
In contrast to the Orlando Consort, La Reverdie is a group that hadn't been very active lately (& indeed I'd mainly thought of their recent releases as reissues), but now takes up some core repertory in L'Occhio del Cor — devoted to Landini: The program takes an autobiographical approach around blindness, selecting songs that refer to sight — including in various metaphorical guises, to yield a distinctive sense of period perceptual hierarchy (in my terms from elsewhere). This involves six first recordings of Landini songs, for instance, making the program of particular note from a discographic perspective. And the liner notes are similarly detailed in the sense of discussing individual song content, but very little on performance style. (In fact, that section of the notes focuses on spelling, which was a surprising orientation for me — not that it doesn't provide guidance on articulation & phrasing, but a desire to come back to a focus on actual spelling seemed novel....) In this case, I tend to associate La Reverdie with the relatively simpler laud repertory of the period, although they've done more "academic" programs too (but not previously devoted to Landini, which kind of surprised me...), and the phrasing & articulation often tend to emphasize short phrases & to seek regular, even danceable rhythms. In contrast, Christophe Deslignes is incredibly fluid on organetto, and perhaps it was the possibility of this pairing that inspired their "return" to this repertory.... I enjoyed both Deslignes' phrasing & basic sound (very like a wind instrument) very much, and perhaps he makes the rest of the ensemble (which employs quite a bit of doubling as well) seem lacking in agility in comparison.... Although the new look at Landini is still welcome, I didn't get much musical insight on his work as a result. (E.g. the raw, emergent power of a Micrologus seems to be missing.) Somehow a lightness of individual tone combines into what seems like a heavy handed ensemble sound, with linear tension almost becoming an afterthought (other than in contrast with the organetto).29 May 2019
With their Obrecht Masses, Beauty Farm turn to two cycles that had already received worthwhile interpretations on disc — as opposed to much of their work, which has been devoted to relatively unknown music (or to new stylistic presentations of music that had been performed by prior generations). In this, they turn in an absolute tour-de-force performance of this music leading into 1500, likely the most forceful & richly detailed on record to this point. (One might add, crucially, that the sense of detailed variety doesn't interfere with the coherent sweep of the mass settings, which is a possible issue.) In this, the choice of Obrecht is also striking, in that his settings are especially transparent & sonically rich to the ear: This is exuberant & ecstatic music, then, in a sense that might be compared to Ockeghem, but within a more thoroughly structured form. Obrecht's music also tends to be relatively similar to itself, at least within broad bands, and so the individual relevance of the particular cycles is worth noting as well: The Missa Fortuna desperata is especially illustrative & even canonical in this regard, and so Beauty Farm's interpretation follows an enjoyable — but not particularly assertive or dangerous — reading by the Sound and the Fury, as paired with the technically similar Missa Rose playsante (another fine cycle to be sure). One might moreover compare Obrecht's setting to that by Josquin, who would appear to have been inspired by it, and particularly in the Tallis Scholars performance, which is both relatively more muffled interpretively & more subtle textually. (Although that interpretation seems relatively recent within this context, I should remind myself that it's actually from 2009, i.e. ten years ago. The Sound and the Fury performance was similarly over ten years earlier than Beauty Farm.... Time marches on.) The Tallis Scholars are also the reference for the previous Missa Maria zart, which as opposed to a mere decade of elapsed time, was my Record of the Year way back in 1996! (It always seemed like a strange issue within their catalog to me, but was also the first Obrecht album of the CD era, as well as a virtuoso piece known for its elaboration of extended sequences....) The structural consistency that Beauty Farm achieve alongside the pure vocal virtuosity of the extended sequences is, once again, at another level of mastery — & indeed their double CD was promptly added to my personal list. (Listening to this double album also proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this music can be extremely powerful & well-articulated with only four singers!) The entire production combines excitement with gravity into an inexorable momentum that seems to define Obrecht's music.... That said, if Beauty Farm is going to start re-recording mass cycles, why not tackle Josquin? Neither they nor the Sound and the Fury have done so. Is there too much historical weight, a sense of the "war horse" as the figure goes? I think it's time: Let's hear, say, the two L'homme armé masses....24 May 2019
Although I haven't generally featured contemporary arrangements here, I do want to make a few remarks about Ars Nova - New Music, which features music by Machaut & De Vitry adapted for a modern string duo (of violin & double bass). In particular, the emphasis is on illustrating the importance of Pythagorean tuning to Ars Nova music — & the program thus includes a (9+') contemporary musical study on the divisions of the major third (as differing by the Pythagorean comma) as well. The Ars Nova selections are generally performed without repeats (although the most elaboration is reserved for Machaut's monophonic lai, Amours doucement me tente in its first recorded performance...), such that an "essential" quality is conveyed — particularly by the sequence of twenty different songs by Machaut. These are wonderfully crisp, & generally briefly evocative interpretations.... The Machaut selections don't visit his most contrapuntally involved music, though, which might give an impression of the limits of the project or approach, but then the program turns to the academic motet in all its glory (albeit at an earlier stage than much of Machaut's music), in the De Vitry motets from Le Roman de Fauvel. The technical precision in each case is superlative, such that the performance provides an exceptionally clear illustration of Machaut's melodic & contrapuntal sense, and then serves substantially to clarify & amplify the detailed interactions in the motets as well. (Note that the adaptations thus go beyond two-voice settings.) Although the performance itself is thus outstanding — & could serve as a worthwhile introduction to Ars Nova music in general — the historical comments included are more often dubious: I'd be inclined to look past them, given the fine performance, but they read specifically like something out of a music textbook from a couple of generations ago. When are these notions ever, finally updated? (Again, I think this is an emerging commentary on the increasing inability to find anything but mainstream commercial information online these days — at least absent much more effort than was required not so very long ago....) Also, there's an implication that these performers have somehow initiated Pythagorean tuning for this music, which likewise dates back nearly 40 years.... So although I strongly agree with the performers that Pythagorean tuning is essential to making much (sense) of the music, I simply find it strange that they seem to be operating so blindly with regard to decades of research on these points. (How is this even possible?) I guess I do have to give them a pass on that, though, since the actual sonic result is so polished & illuminating.25 February 2019
Finally (for this little burst of entries), to step back into a more technical orientation, particularly after enjoying their La Rue disc (& the Missa Inviolata — another setting on the Virgin — in particular), I want to turn to The Brabant Ensemble's new Févin program: This is another very long album from them, packing in a lot of material (& unfortunately using far too many track markers, as the Tallis Scholars also did on their new Josquin album), and supported by a quality technical discussion from Rice. Regarding the prior rant, I do often find Rice's group to be too "pretty" & distant, but he does take a thoughtful (& not modernist) approach to tuning & ficta, and so brings out a wealth of detail in phrasing, etc. So that's good (& I believe that he, along with Hyperion in general, reacts to the public preferences I mention below by simply recording more quietly & with less presence, which isn't ideal either...). So that said, Rice makes a good case for hearing more from Févin, and this is an important program to extend his large-scale discography beyond the Requiem. Févin actually died before both La Rue & Josquin, although he was apparently younger & writing in a somewhat newer style: Indeed, the sometimes light tone (& homophonic or alternating passages) suggest a later orientation (i.e. anticipate modern smugness), but there are significant technical challenges as well, particularly in working Josquin's famous Ave Maria into a mass cycle. The latter is an example of early parody technique, and seems to place the structural aspects almost secondarily: There's a sort of "prettiness" to the music, almost to the point that one might talk of "decorating" a structure, and that's what Févin emphasizes. And it's quite decorated — although in a very different mode from the swirling weirdness of the contemporaneous Missa Ave Maria by Thomas Ashwell (as discussed via swirling weirdness here in September, and as largely absent such a structural skeleton). This is the sort of style that leads into word painting, etc., and a comparison goes some way toward answering Schmelzer's call for a consideration of the distinctive quality of English (musical) aesthetics at this particular (almost early modern) moment. (There's also the little swap, an English group doing Continental music & vice versa.)
Whereas Ashwell might be said to remove the skeleton from under the decorations — or liberate them, as Schmelzer suggests — their contemporary (who did outlive La Rue & Josquin) Bauldeweyn presents more structural innovation: The Beauty Farm double album was revelatory in this regard, but now Peter Urquhart has indeed returned with a contribution of his own, in this case an album around the Missa Du bon du cueur with some related songs by other composers. Here I actually prefer the song performances, including for their consort arrangements around low instruments (including sackbuts). The result is distinctive & earthy (& reminds me of later diminution technique, e.g. as articulated by Ortiz), but the large ensemble used on the mass tracks (& these may date to different recording sessions), together with so-so recording equipment, lends a rather muddy result there too. Still, the solid structural clarity & sweep of Bauldeweyn's ideas do come through, almost like a powerful musical scaffolding. This is the sort of music that was soon to disappear, and these are workmanlike performances worth hearing.1 January 2019
A couple of recent Josquin albums give me an opportunity — or perhaps a command — to write a little more about public impressions of this music — which, as regular readers will know, I approach as late medieval. The latter is significant with a composer like Josquin in particular, i.e. one whose works are often hailed as anticipating Renaissance modernity (or in my terms, imperial-colonial modernity). In particular, even as performance practice evolves for earlier music, and indeed for the music of the Josquin era (as in e.g. the immediately prior La Rue discussion), there's still an urge to perform Josquin in a later 16th century style, or even to prioritize vocal aesthetics that originated with Restoration England. That the latter style is ahistorical when applied to Franco-Flemish polyphony of c.1500 is not only incredibly obvious, but has been discussed — including publicly — in great detail in the past couple of decades. Musicians know it, of course: The most recent Josquin program by The Tallis Scholars is a good example of improving command in this repertory, including of tuning, ficta, rhythm, etc. (All have been mangled, and were as a norm not so long ago, including by the Scholars themselves.) Their Missa Gaudeamus in particular is probably their most accomplished yet, for instance. (And, once again, there is no documentation provided regarding when the recording was made. For all I know, the entire cycle of cycles was recorded several years ago & is being slowly released over time.) Indeed, it's probably the single most compelling version of one of Josquin's most sophisticated — & best served on record, as opposed to some of the early entries in the Tallis Scholars' renewed series — masses, but also doesn't set new standards. Like their previous Josquin album, that featuring the Missa Di dadi, it's also paired with a lesser work, in this case the Missa L'ami baudichon. (However, whereas the pairing on the prior album was basically a throwaway, the latter has its merits. It's somewhat crude, but projects an appealing solidity... as first revealed by Peter Urquhart, to whom the next entry will partly turn. Once this series concludes, and this is the 7th of 9 albums, if prior comments are to be believed, the way that most have paired greater & lesser cycles will probably end up limiting its appeal somewhat. I suppose that's simply a consequence of whatever version of "complete" is being used here....) The Missa Gaudeamus is not an "odd ball" Josquin cycle, however (as was Di dadi), and so fits comfortably in a general survey of his style: One might invert such an assessment, though, and begin to suggest that unique cycles are far more characteristic of Josquin, and specifically for their lack of general characteristics: They often adopt personal stances, whether due to technical challenges, or some other sort of orientation, that yields a particular musical perspective & sonic (& aesthetic) result, not unlike motets (which achieve such a result in part via differing texts).
And I suppose that my continued refrain regarding motets, and so why so many groups are focusing only on mass cycles, has become tedious: Yet motets have long been regarded as Josquin's most significant output, so their neglect is particularly vexing. And so I was happy to see a new program finally appear: Indeed, even seeing the announcement reminded me of the Herreweghe classic (which was, coincidentally, relatively new when the EM FAQ project began, and so my first Josquin recommendation there), but the result felt more like a journey back in time than merely that: I don't mean it in a positive sense either, but rather as a regression in attitude & approach toward the music, i.e. as a renewed attempt to approach it from a later (largely Baroque, i.e. modern) perspective. Reading the liner notes in particular felt almost like my work had never existed: From trivial complaints such as never mentioning Absalon, fili mi at all (and so its more recent attribution to La Rue), to the pat absurdity of claiming that people wouldn't have been able to hear two melodies at once, they're utterly dismissive of a medieval orientation (& without even mentioning the possibility, almost as if part of a "there is no alternative" Thatcherist cant...). The performance follows suit (or perhaps the notes reflect the performance): The earlier repertory is performed in a wretched manner, with absurd ahistorical tuning & ficta, and indeed muddled phrasing that obscures the middle parts almost completely. This jumbled mess of turgid rhythmic interpolations & cadential "tics" does then start to sound almost appropriate by the time of the more motivic Miserere (as the program proceeds mostly chronologically), i.e. the title track & without cantus firmus.... One can barely pick out the tenor elsewhere, and so of course the various chants are obscured, and moreover, rather than emphasizing intervals around the tenor, tuning is allowed to move around (including there, in the "hold" voice) in order to emphasize a smooth, soprano-dominated texture. I haven't read any other discussion of this interpretation to this point, but I have no doubt that it'll be hailed by Baroque-oriented listeners (& people who just love Western imperialism, whatever else they might claim) who — pace e.g. the complaints regarding tuning by Ars Antiqua, which is at least according to a well intended approach, if not fine execution — want their music to sound "angelic" & placidly unchallenging, while anything premodern should indeed seem obscure & pointless. The result is a triumph in this sense! Do I know anything about who Daniel Reuss is? No, other than that he has recorded later music to this point, and that this is supposed to be the start of his series on the Renaissance.... The whole thing comes off as an unrepentant glorification of imperial modernity to me, and so quite far from clashing sorrows.... I mean, to be fair, there are some nice moments where some of the distinctive sweep of the famous motets reveals itself, but in obscuring most of the musical detail, that also comes off as imperious in & of itself. I try not to get too much into negative rants here, but "disappointing" doesn't begin to describe the resulting impact. (And yes, it also makes for something of a meditation on the passing of internet — & so general — relevance for non-commercial sites such as this. None of this should surprise me, yet hearing it really did offend me in a pretty basic way. Boo!) To return to the "back in time" observation, then, this album doesn't prompt me to look back to c.1500, but rather back to c.1980 — or perhaps (itself in distorted form) to c.1600. The latter seems to have been the intent.30 December 2018
Perhaps there are more items that'll be appearing, particularly if they were recorded only this year, but the 500th anniversary of La Rue's death has at least brought a relatively small but high quality set of releases, in particular the Beauty Farm double album from early in the year, half the fine Requiem disc from Diabolus in Musica, and now another double album of masses from The Sound and the Fury. (It still appears as though the latter has stopped meeting as an ensemble, as the recording itself actually dates from 2013, i.e. to shortly after the Pipelare double album that had been their climactic issue.) Whereas Beauty Farm's program consisted entirely of four-part cycles, however, The Sound and the Fury devote a (small) majority of the program to five-part settings — all based on monophonic material, though. In particular, whereas the second disc reprises the virtuosic program (of thirty years ago now) by Ensemble Clément Janequin, the first is perhaps more successful, providing striking & polished second (in both cases, as it happens) interpretations of both the Missa Paschale & Ista est speciosa (both in five voices, sung here one to a part): The Easter Mass is actually a later piece than the Christmas cycle included in the recent Beauty Farm set, and that much more restrained technically. (The notes suggest that it might be too severe to be successful, but I've found it to be quite successful since first hearing it by Ars Antiqua of Paris — in an interpretation that continues to draw a surprising amount of bile from the general public, but more on that in the next entry.) The Virgin Mass — one of a significant handful by La Rue — presents an even more exuberant, even sparkling setting, and is a real high point itself. In contrast, the second disc seems a little less accomplished interpretation-wise, but does reprise the Missa L'homme armé after a rather long interval, and moreover attempts the Requiem at pitch. Both end up a bit murky (including the low parts in the L'homme armé) — & do recall that Visse's group had been supported by organ, helping to bolster what was a relatively coherent interpretation for the time. (One might also remark that another L'homme armé setting, as attributed by Meconi, remains unrecorded. It's a later, canonic work, and one of only a few La Rue cycles that isn't recorded at this point. I might note that none of the individual mass movements has been recorded, however, which might not seem curious given the preoccupation with full cycles, but then many movements have appeared as extracts anyway....) So whereas the previous SATF La Rue album presented later technical tour de forces, here after the relatively youthful Missa L'homme armé, they've presented relatively straightforward (albeit still challenging) mature settings on plainchant themes. And so this disc was added to my personal list.29 December 2018
I will now be keeping at least a year of remarks on this page. This will allow readers to construct their own year-end summaries of recordings in this category, if they so desire. (There is now also an archive, although it dates only to the October 2014 format revision.)
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.)
To earlier remarks.
To early music CD Index with search.
To jazz remarks.
To Early Music FAQ.Todd M. McComb <firstname.lastname@example.org>