This page concerns the "Early Music" portion of the site. (Although I do not remember specifically myself, if I trust what I see online, it appears that this feature began in April 2000, then in a monthly digest format.)
As of October 2014, I will be making comments here on an intermittent, not on a strictly monthly basis. Accordingly, entries will be dated more precisely than by their month.
As always, comments here are what I choose to note about a release, and do not follow a strict format. Only recordings about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say will be mentioned in this space.
Comments are in reverse chronological order, i.e. newest first.Todd M. McComb
I thought that I didn't have enough to say about the recent Binchois Consort album to be worth making a note, but now I'm thinking that it makes a good entry into a discussion of The Liberation of the Gothic by Graindelavoix: First of all, this is the former's second "multimedia" program around the English repertory from the Hundred Years War, in particular referencing alabaster figures of the Virgin, albeit only in the text that accompanies (and thus mediates) the musical program. Such a trans-sensory exploration has a general appeal, even if I didn't find myself especially intrigued. In particular, I mostly found myself thinking — amid this generally appealing, mixed program — that there still aren't ideal albums devoted to Dunstaple or Frye. (The latter has had nearly everything recorded, in generally decent performances, but usually scattered in broader programs. The former not only has fewer dedicated albums, at least of late, than his stature might suggest, but arguably, has yet to even have a thorough presentation of his overall style appear on record.) Returning to an orientation on The Liberation of the Gothic, then, both Dunstaple & Frye present parallels to Continental polyphony from the life of Dufay, the former with his early work, and the latter with his later mass cycles. In the following English generations, though, my interest tends to wane relative to Franco-Flemish polyphony (where it waxes), until reemerging around the mature post-Reformation style of Byrd et al., as again paralleling the Continent. (And in my case, it's the instrumental music that's of particular interest, likely — or simplistically — because the religious content of the sacred vocal works was strongly affected by political fashion. In other words, abstract musical considerations dominated instrumental music, although one cannot discount stealth messaging.) One can attribute such a decline in the later fifteenth century exactly to the events circumscribed by the Binchois Consort series, the ultimate defeat of the Plantagenets in the Hundred Years War, and then the political & social chaos of the War of the Roses, during which the remaining Plantagenets were exterminated as a political force. The wars provide a historical context for what the music itself suggests, namely withdrawal & introversion: Enter Graindelavoix with their program of two Marian pieces by John Browne, as well as the especially florid Missa Ave Maria by Thomas Ashwell. As the intro might suggest, it had been a while since I had given a serious listen to this repertory, as it had largely faded from my consciousness over the past two decades. Björn Schmelzer generally has intriguing things to say about his programs, though, and definitely tries to reimagine their contexts, so that provided my motivation to have a listen: Here, first of all, he not only makes the sensible observation that this era presents an opportunity to consider English aesthetics apart from strong Continental interaction, but further implies that since English aesthetics somehow came to dominate the world via Empire, we should better understand its early modern trajectory. (I agree that aesthetics are often more important than suggested by mainstream history, and so want to be sure not to imply that aesthetics followed Empire. The reverse is quite conceivable.) On this point, I've already suggested a notion of withdrawal, and indeed a renewed cloistering of English creative practice, such that the Dissolution of the Monasteries (only fifty years after the Tudor victory) created a sort of slingshot effect: Ritual music that had only recently become even more privately oriented was suddenly forced into public view, including via new (emerging capitalist) forms of economic survival, etc. (One might further note that there was not a similar musical — as opposed to economic — withdrawal in the closing days of the English Empire. Indeed, the "English Invasion" of the Beatles et al. was anything but a withdrawal, such that the modern era arrived in England with a far different trajectory than it ended, and not even with a real inversion: A last grasp at world relevance, perhaps?) Further, Schmelzer is concerned with a particular genre of private ritual, namely the veneration of the Virgin as exemplified in earlier generations by the English Ladymass. (And regarding patriarchy, veneration of the Virgin accompanied Christianity more generally, including throughout this era in Franco-Flemish polyphony, although perhaps nowhere more strongly than in England. After all, these people did ultimately accept a Queen, despite various contemporary laments. (And moreover, as discussed elsewhere [*], patriarchy actually intensified during the early modern period as a whole, so Schmelzer's liberation is more of a last gasp....)) He discusses these relations not with figur(in)es, then, but rather with architecture, and in particular, the Decorated Style — rather than the "solid" cathedral architecture of foundations, etc. In other words, and most of my remarks here are only inspired by Schmelzer, he's suggesting parallels (& inspirations) not with the free-standing architecture of cathedral building itself, but rather with the various internal "decorative" elements that suggest not only a womb-like sense of enclosure, but lend a general sensuality to those interiors. In prior decades, I had characterized the distinctive aspects of Continental polyphony according to rhetorical "foundations" — as opposed to the more abstract, floral style in England — but Schmelzer's remarks suggest that such a foundation was not only rhetorical, but more literal: It suggests music with a free-standing structure of its own, its own sense of solidity, rather than as sonic embellishment of other structures (i.e. cathedrals). So what is the historical-technical basis for such a divergent summary? One straightforward observation is that England's withdrawal was contemporaneous with "liberation" of the bass around Ockeghem, not the bass as another filigree part (as in e.g. the Ashwell Mass), and not simply to underline harmonies generated from the tenor, but as a structural element. Whereas "the irrational" remains prominent in Ockeghem's intuitive style, such a structural innovation was quickly placed into rationalizing contexts — i.e. large-scale, formal structures — by Continental polyphonists such as Busnoys & Obrecht. This is precisely the step that did not occur in England, and given Schmelzer's remarks, one might agree that an irrational sense of mystery was retained intentionally, and for religious reasons (that were demolished, particularly in England, by subsequent generations & their drive to worldly power). As phrases & motifs move around seemingly at random, as even the bass is indulging in diminution, rather than "supporting," there is a resulting disorientation for the listener, apparently intended to bring about religious insight. (And that such a sense of mysticism is more Catholic than Protestant is clear — even as Catholicism had developed a rather practical medieval philosophy as well.) Moreover, was such a capricious work as Ashwell's Missa Ave Maria constructed to trigger particular chapel resonances (& so messages from particular sources within the chapel decor)? Schmelzer does not suggest as much, but recall that similar claims have been made regarding Machaut's Nostre Dame Mass.... A very specific physical setting might have been involved (whereas writing for a non-specific setting might have inspired on the Continent, as manuscripts increasingly traveled). That said, and note that Ashwell's six-voice setting is roughly contemporaneous with the greatest cycles of Josquin & La Rue, not to mention to have become a significant influence on John Taverner, and thus on the post-Dissolution English musical world, his generation (the immediate pre-Dissolution generation) seems to have taken this sense of irrationality to its height. (And note that, lacking the Kyrie, English mass cycles start out with an unwieldy text, rather than one more suitable for establishing motivic relations. So a style yielding a sense of mysticism likely emerged from other constraints as well, although once again, there are chicken & egg questions: Which came first?) In the generation prior, as represented on The Liberation of the Gothic by the extended pieces by Browne, the Eton Choirbook is relatively more rational — if lacking the bass developments just noted. Indeed, Schmelzer makes an Obrecht comparison himself, and that's where my mind went, to the antiphons in particular. (I might also note a structural affinity to the long mass cycles by Faugues, in e.g. Browne's extended Stabat Mater: Phrases are linked similarly, although Browne injects more variety, while Faugues develops some early textural climaxes. And the structural foundation on the Continent allowed musicians to build long-form climaxes — beyond simply shifting revelry & in accord with a rhetorical impetus.) Obrecht's soaring lines do sound analogous, even if Obrecht's sense of structure becomes apparent in the written score (& so subliminally to the ear?), and moreover, one should probably associate "sensuality" with Marian music more broadly.... Such a soaring style then yields the even more filigreed & diversified settings of Ashwell et al., such that the "ethereal" English sound, as beloved by both the Restoration & twentieth century revival, begins to appear — only to transform into the gritty, grounded Elizabethan style. (And note that it was left to English consort music to explore a subsequent fascination with bass....) So all that said (and the complexity of my textual interventions is probably confusing too...), I do enjoy the Ashwell mass, although "intended to confuse the listener" is not generally my preference. (But frankly, why shouldn't it be? I've been fighting the overly rationalized for years.... I still believe in actual teaching at some point, though, not simply confusion!) Graindelavoix generally provides excellent, energetic performances, and this is no exception. Perhaps the result is too resonant, but then, maybe that's intentional too. Does the music evoke the (invaginated?) intimacy of a lady chapel? Does e.g. Ockeghem evoke (sensuous) physicality per se in his relatively early Missa L'homme armé? Perhaps. And specific music aside, thanks go to Schmelzer for provoking thoughts on cross sensory modalities in these more specific historical terms....6 September 2018
Ensemble Gilles Binchois has returned, once again, to Notre Dame repertory (or, in this case, the allied Codex Las Huelgas) with Fons luminis, an anthology involving a variety of genres from the period. I don't know that I really have much to say about this new effort (once again) on Evidence Classics, but do want to note here that I added it to my personal list. Performance practice seems to be quite advanced in this repertory at this point, which is always a welcome development. I guess I should add that it's something of a historical accident (with regard to interpretive programs) that there are two versions of Perotin's Sederunt principes on my list, but now none of its companion, Viderunt omnes. Isn't it about time for someone to take another pass at a "complete" Perotin album? (The present program is entirely anonymous, which is certainly not an indication of low quality, but does leave the pieces with less sense of history, however illusory that might be.)24 August 2018
When I first heard that Diabolus in Music was doing a Requiem program devoted to Ockeghem & La Rue, of course I wanted to hear what they had done with these pieces, but I also wasn't sure. After all, these are "war horses" in some sense, at least relative to repertory of this era, this being the 18th complete recording of the Ockeghem cycle & 12th of the La Rue. I also felt as though the Ockeghem cycle is fairly well "plumbed," so to speak, and indeed I don't think that Antoine Guerber & company show anything new about the piece, but they do produce an outstanding performance, and that's always welcome. I was even surprised that they incorporated some cadential ornaments, perhaps as a nod to Ensemble Organum, but as stated in the comments on my personal list, it works well. My misgivings on the La Rue arose from the notion of pitch & how the piece has typically been transposed to fit into a smaller overall range: Extreme Singing by the obscure Vox Ensemble was the first to perform it at pitch, and I found the result compelling. (Indeed, the 11th recording of the piece, that by Cappella Pratensis, appeared — together with the 17th recording of the Ockeghem! — shortly afterward, and despite its strengths, I wasn't really able to appreciate the transposed performance.) But Diabolus in Musica adopt this approach as well, so perhaps it is or will be generally accepted... it sounds correct to me. (Perhaps I should also note, somewhat indulgently, that they do not address my suggestion from a couple of decades ago that the "lost" Dufay Requiem is actually embedded in the beginning of Ockeghem's cycle.... Perhaps such a suggestion is simply unanswerable, or was disproven somewhere I didn't notice: As my center of gravity has shifted to more contemporary activities, I don't notice the non-recording literature to the degree that I once did....) Altogether then, as I remark in the other comments, this isn't a groundbreaking album, but it's quite welcome nonetheless. Now I suppose I should wonder (or worry) why the Bayard Musique label isn't more widely distributed....18 August 2018
I've kept an eye on Sequentia's productions of music prior to or from outside of the geographic or cultural confines of "regular" medieval music, i.e. the emergence of both the vernacular troubadour repertory & two-voice polyphony out of the Carolingian Renaissance and into the Notre Dame phenomenon. By the twelfth century, and especially into the thirteenth, whereas there are various musical mysteries of various scopes, there is also a large supply of documents & materials — written music, often from a variety of sources, theoretical or other textual discussions, etc. The volume of material allows for a kind of cross referencing, especially as iterated through various practical performance opportunities over the years, that in turn builds confidence in a correspondence between today's musical results & earlier sounds. I shouldn't overstate this confidence or correspondence, however, as e.g. details of tuning have only been investigated over the past couple of decades, and details of vocal timbre even more recently, etc. And so, whereas the earlier or adjunct material that has continued to fascinate Sequentia over the years comes with less direct information to study, and so brings more uncertainty, in many ways, that's only a matter of degree. (One might even say that this material brings more to study, as the absence of direct sources can prompt studying an entire surrounding web of indirect sources... up to the limits of cultural production in total.) Still, my interest emerges with those better known repertories, the pre- & Notre Dame polyphony, and the troubadours, and indeed intensifies with polyphony of the fourteenth & fifteenth centuries.... From that perspective, the mysterious monophonic songs pursued by Sequentia have seemed less compelling, musically speaking, and not simply more obscure. However, while this material might be musically obscure, it's often culturally just the opposite: E.g. the Icelandic sagas or indeed Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy are iconic, the latter having broadly conditioned Western thought well into the Renaissance period (after directly influencing e.g. Machaut & so many others...) & beyond. So all that said, whereas I wanted to hear the new Songs of Consolation reconstruction from Sequentia & scholar Sam Barrett, I had no expectation of putting it onto my personal list — but the music itself won me over, even to the point of rearranging some sections in that part of the site. The interpretation is largely based on deciphering (via cross reference, trial & error, etc.) notation surviving from Canterbury in the 1000s, i.e. roughly 500 years after Boethius. (And so, whereas one might consider the accuracy of this reading of 1000s notation, there is little or no way to judge its correspondence with the sixth century sound world of Boethius. I'll simply set such a presumptive correspondence aside.) This has not been Bagby's first attempt with this music either, but Barrett's work (published in a large 2013 study) seems to have taken the reconstruction to another level: Again, whether or not this music is "accurate" in any sense, it is certainly striking, and creates a uniquely affective album today. (And as the notes suggest, the principals spent many years working on this music, both together & separately. This result didn't arrive overnight. There is also apparently a "making of" video on Youtube, but I don't patronize the garish & obnoxious "Youtube," so can't say anything else about that.) In other words, I have no direct way to judge the accuracy of the reconstruction, but it's not derivative: It forges a real style, whatever that style may be. Beyond the murky "earliness" then — and the program includes some of the earliest surviving Western European instrumental tunes as well — this is also aristocratic music, in the direct sense with Boethius himself, but also prefiguring the elite impulses giving rise to the troubadours & Notre Dame (& indeed Western philosophy). Its historical influence is thus a highly charged one. Yet, crucial to this space, one actually has the feel of listening to something new... er, I mean, I guess, old. The strength of the musical result was thus also quite unexpected.9 July 2018
I suppose I've already said most of what I want to say about The Dufay Spectacle in the notes from my personal list, but perhaps some more thoughts are in order here: In particular, whereas the Cantica Symphonia album devoted to two masses, released in 2014, was an excellent & welcome interpretive development for that repertory, the secular music (& especially the chansons) have been relatively neglected of late. Dufay's output is vast & varied, and so such things may be understandable from a cyclic perspective, but then, secular music by composers of subsequent decades has been relatively neglected of late too... (as mentioned here so often already). Of course, with the complete set (recorded in 1980), not to mention intermittent attention for a century, Dufay's chansons are not truly neglected! Still, it surprised me that it had been so long since such a program, Mille Bonjours! recorded in 2006, appeared. That program, although it didn't include motets as here, was likewise in sections meant to evoke different moods. (Given the New Year's celebration theme of the Spectacle, it might also be compared to a program such as Clemencic's Machaut cycle in its mixed inspiration. Yet that program moves explicitly into church music, whereas this does not — despite that some of these ceremonial motets were conceived for performance in churches.) So I might have preferred an album focusing on the chansons, but the result is particularly good for the motets... albeit "only" five of them. The "lushness" of some of the tracks seems both appropriate & novel for Gothic Voices, so they should be congratulated for continuing to develop their style, and indeed the result here is an accomplishment. (I did not actually expect to enjoy this album so much from its description.) Perhaps there will be a followup album? Perhaps these are enough remarks from me for now....22 May 2018
The Orlando Consort Machaut Edition continues with Fortune's Child, which is the fifth issue. I don't have too much to say about this disc individually, and have yet to really rework my "personal entry" on the series.... (A crude count of Machaut's works suggests that they are not quite half done at this point. So there is much more to come.) Certainly it retains a stark quality in keeping with the English all-vocal interpretation. (The starkness can be an asset at times, but I also find myself sometimes wishing for more richness of timbre and/or ornament.) The precision & attention to detail remain welcome, as is the ongoing facility, which can only increase as the project continues.... There's also the issue of the recorded sound, which they've been balancing better. Still, I have to wonder why the insistence on such a resonant acoustic, and indeed on recording in a church? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, and seems to be about making some sort of statement outside of the music. (And I suppose that since I'm hearing the CD version, it's entirely possible that the higher bandwidth digital versions that Hyperion is offering online render the sound quality an unmitigated asset. I don't know about that, but my question applies nonetheless.) Anyway, I'm continuing to appreciate the series, and wanted to note the latest release here.7 May 2018
I was expecting to enjoy the new La Rue double album by Beauty Farm, but it has exceeded expectations: Whereas I was most looking forward to another Missa Tous les regretz recording (as one of La Rue's most characteristic late parody masses on his own material), and had become intrigued with the Missa Almana (perhaps La Rue's first mass cycle, which is interesting enough) after it had been repositioned (again) as Missa Pourquoy non by William Kempster (including by his own recording from 2007), I didn't expect the other two masses to be especially notable. However, perhaps in part because of the emerging performance practice, meaning that these cycles are better interpreted & expressed than most others of the period at this point (in part by virtue of being the most recently addressed), the relatively early Missa Puer natus est & Missa de Sancto Antonio make strong individual impressions too. These are all four voice cycles, the similar forces contributing to the overall power of the program, meaning that they exist (particularly the one later cycle, Tous les regretz) in something of a different series from that of the five-part cycles (or the six-part "unicorn"). They're also, as opposed to the "premiere" assertion prominently displayed on the package, all second recordings, the first having been made by Kempster or Michel Sanvoisin in all four cases, which is curious enough: One might go on to ask what "really" constitutes releasing a premiere recording, but particularly given the analysis Kempster has published on Pourquoy non, the production thus comes off as somewhat underinformed or even disrespectful. (Nonetheless, although taking up some of Kempster's observations would have undoubtedly improved the Missa Pourquoy non interpretation, the result is impressive. That said, Kempster's recording, with amateur singers, is a credible interpretation too. Sanvoisin has likewise been focusing on La Rue for a long time, having recorded six mass cycles, plus a handful of other pieces, over the years.) The notes do make mention of the historical Pourquoy non ascription, but not of the more recent literature. I also find the suggestions that La Rue's reputation was mainly based on his mass cycles, and that he never surpassed his early works in the genre, to be flatly inaccurate. That said, perhaps the author is implying that La Rue's motets (as opposed to his chansons, which are clearly at the apex of their genre, or even his diverse "ritual works") are of relatively more modest stature (as a group) — and simply asserting (correctly) that La Rue's early cycles are not to be missed. All that said, this double album was an easy addition to my personal list, and something I've enjoyed over & over since receiving it from Germany only a couple of weeks ago: Both program & interpretation are so impressive! Although I'd still like to see Beauty Farm release more motet programs, this set of four mass cycles really shows how far interpretations of music of the period have come: It's one of the most compelling such albums ever to appear, and the fact that it consists of music that had been relatively anonymous speaks for itself. Exceeding (high) expectations is a wonderful thing, especially when so much from our contemporary moment (& so much more than medieval music recordings!) has been underwhelming (or worse)....6 April 2018
Jenkins' four-part consort music (mostly fantasias) continues to attract interest, most recently with a new complete recording from Fretwork. There's no discussion of how they decided what did & didn't belong in this "complete" collection, just as there is no discussion of repertory accompanying Spirit of Gambo's second volume — which includes material not on this set, but also fills some obvious gaps from their first volume. (It also includes some tracks involving organ, so that seems different enough.) I guess I hadn't been following some of Fretwork's recent albums, particularly as they continue to venture outside of "consort music" proper, but I do note that the personnel is almost entirely different from their days as pioneers: Richard Boothby remains, and so apparently this is his ensemble now (and maybe it always was?). In any case, it's worthwhile to be able to hear a different interpretation of this repertory (at least the fourth that's at least partially "complete"), and it's interesting that the four-part music seems to attract the most attention. Presumably this is because of its similarity (in forces) to the coming (and eventually dominant) string quartet oeuvre, but do note that Jenkins' fantasias are generally for treble, two tenors & bass, rather than doubling the top end. In any case, the Fretwork set is enjoyable, even elegant, but I'd call it more rhetorical than Spirit of Gambo, and less colorful. (This might be because the latter use larger instruments with less string tension, but then, Fretwork doesn't state the nature of their instruments in this regard.) There's almost an austere mood in comparison with the richer sound of the latter. The differences are modest, however, and the Fretwork set is perfectly recommendable as an illustration of some of the central music of this general repertory. That so many English consort performances come off in such satisfying manner these days is certainly a welcome development.15 March 2018
I've never been one to root around in archives or scour original sources for personal information about composers (nor have I wanted to be): I've been more interested in the music "itself" and simply read such personal details as others uncovered them. As the scare quotes imply, though, there's really no such thing as context-free music, and even though a general context for c.1500 sacred polyphony clearly exists, I'm obviously not immune to thinking about individual pieces according to the composers who wrote them. It can be helpful in appreciating the music — as can various other details of circumstance that sometimes emerge from the historical record, or alternately remain obscure. Meanwhile, given the high reputation of Josquin Desprez, if not the towering (and, to me, overstated) reputation sometimes portrayed, I always imagined that the details of his life & work chronology would eventually resolve themselves to a much greater degree. Even when the Milanese Josquin (Dascanio) started throwing question marks into some long-accepted narratives, I expected clarity to re-emerge. Well, at this point, biographical clarity is starting to look unlikely (or finally seeming impossible). Indeed, it seems we might have to accept never really knowing what is or isn't part of Josquin's body of work, and not only in a few fringe cases, but across a broad swath of otherwise major pieces. I've also been involved (at times) in making judgments on whether a piece "sounds like" it's by a particular composer, and sometimes I feel pretty confident about that, but at this point, Josquin's work is so diffuse — if that term makes sense — that it's actually becoming difficult to eliminate anything stylistically. (One might still make judgments based on quality, but there are early pieces, e.g. Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, that betray even that notion.) The alternative would seem to be to restrict his confirmed output to a handful of prominent works that are usually taken to anticipate later style (i.e. Palestrina), and that's part of the issue: Josquin's reception has been so strongly conditioned subsequently, and based on so many historical prejudices derived from "progress" orientations toward modern music, that such an "arc" of development has taken on a life of its own. However, as a recent recording, by a couple of previously unknown ensembles, of a Missa Quem dicunt homines — attributed to Josquin in its only source, but dismissed stylistically in the mid-twentieth century — indicates (and the accompanying discussion brings out many of these issues), there might be (among other things) later parts of his output that are in new styles. In fact, perhaps his stylistic range was quite broad: We seem to think nothing of this being the case for e.g. Isaac, but then, Isaac is not taken as the paradigm for modern musical development. (Moreover, similar questions have already existed around e.g. the Missa Di dadi, which I particularly enjoy, and are even being considered around other prominent works. So this has been a simmering issue.) Whereas the previously unknown singers do indulge in some clichés of modern Renaissance choral interpretations such as muted timbres, ritardandi, and sighing dynamics, they do actually keep a good pulse & project a strong rhythmic energy. (In fact, it's largely the opening Richafort motet to which those complaints apply, so that's probably a matter of the music itself.) Consequently, the interpretation didn't make a strong impression on me at first, but the more I listen, the more I appreciate the work they've done to bring this music to life, and the album has been added to my personal list. (I also wonder how long it took to make the recording, as this information is entirely absent from the documentation.) The mass cycle itself takes up some notions from the French court around Richafort & other composers who haven't particularly struck my ear: That circle, one Josquin would have taught & inspired, is the origin of the specific style of the mass, as well as of the original thematic material. Within that orbit, the present mass seems to have had some prominence: Josquin's former students convinced him to write a parody mass to join — or even validate — their project? It's an intriguing idea, and the result is impressive — even "showy," & as the notes argue, Josquin did like to outdo others musically. This is a parody mass of high density & uncharacteristic dissonance (for Josquin), but it also shows such a sense of elegance.... The fast repetition of short motifs is characteristic of Josquin in many works, but one thing this mass doesn't do is build to longer, more climactic movements — its arc is more centered, a la La Rue. (Perhaps this is due to the use of a motet for the Elevation, for unknown reasons. And I guess the entire mass is made to end with the feel of a question? That aspect could have been handled a little better in the interpretation.) So if the Missa Quem dicunt homines is by Josquin, it adds a new dimension to his output. (I guess that goes without saying. Perhaps the consonant, Italianate Josquin, in which I would e.g. include the Missa Pange lingua, was never the "final" Josquin then?) The first recording of Josquin's "other" genealogy motet also grows in prominence with exposure, seeming less awkward (that based mostly on the challenging text) & even potent. Altogether, this is an impactful album, seemingly from out of nowhere.4 March 2018
Although they've mostly focused on later music, and their interpretive style still owes quite a bit to the even later English Cathedral repertory (with its large, stratified ensembles), I was very appreciative of the Brabant Ensemble's La Rue disc, and especially its Missa Inviolata, which has become one of my favorite La Rue cycles. So of course I was going to listen to their Obrecht disc, which involves music from a couple of decades earlier still. (I'll also note that a recording like this, i.e. a late December release, would have made me crazy back in the days of doing year end reviews. I'm glad that's no longer an issue.) The major work on the program is the Missa Grecorum, presumably part of Obrecht's mature & characteristic outpouring of mass cycles c.1490, but it includes other premieres as well. The tune behind the Missa Grecorum is unidentified, but possibly has a connection to the Eastern Church via Vatican ceremonies. Unlike the more rhetorical Missa Inviolata, though, I don't hear the Missa Grecorum as a major "new" work: I'm not sure that it improves my appreciation for Obrecht at all, in fact, although it's an enjoyable piece of music. The (also premiered here) motet on St. Basil is more intriguing in this regard, but the performance starts to weigh on my appreciation: Although the feeling of "rhythmic shear" from e.g. the opening homophony of the mass is striking, the ensemble often seems to be playing catch up, i.e. to lack rhythmic vigor, even becoming mechanical & ponderous at times. It doesn't seem that Brabant's typical mid-16th century orientation fits Obrecht's music very well, since it requires rhythmic precision together with an ecstatic quality. The vocal blend likewise seems more out of joint here than on their La Rue (which deploys more explicit alternation anyway), with high voices sometimes sticking oddly out of an otherwise muddy texture. The opening Salve regina seems so foggy & stagnant... although the mass interpretation that follows has some appealing sections. (I'm not happy with the proliferation of track markers either, since as noted elsewhere, that makes it more difficult to program e.g. a single mass. Perhaps I should have complained more when A:N:S Chorus started doing this, but then, their recordings were truly new & exciting....) Nonetheless, this is the most ambitious Obrecht program in a while, and so worth hearing. Actually, it's unclear to me if there's anything exciting left to discover in Obrecht's masses (which remain his most important works). I wouldn't bet against it, though.22 January 2018
Although it's later music than I most often mention here, I wanted to make a few remarks about the new album by Graindelavoix featuring Cypriano de Rore, Portrait of the Artist as a Starved Dog. First of all, Björn Schmelzer discusses the title in relation to both actual portraits of De Rore & an image by Dürer (with the "actual" starved dog), as well as in relation to notions of "divine" artistry applied (not for the first time) in the sixteenth century, e.g. especially to Michelangelo. The program focuses on Rore's madrigals, but also includes secular motets, a hybrid genre of the period with similar themes & expressivity, and divides his output into three phases. They also approach the singing without diminutions, and so despite some instrumental accompaniment, produce a rather austere reading: Yet this is precisely a reading that illuminates Rore's previously unprecedented emotional range. I've generally found Schmelzer's interpretations to be thought provoking, and as the forgoing remarks suggest, this is no exception. It's also not unusual for me to be drawn more to interpretations of later music by musicians who have mostly worked with earlier music — rather than the other way around — and Graindelavoix bring a firm fifteenth century (& even Ars Antiqua) footing to this mid-sixteenth century repertory. From the perspective of a medievalist this music is indeed late, but from a perspective critiquing Western global imperialism (the world-defining activity of the historical "modern era" per se), it's early: One can note the (relatively novel, then, to become more common with Monteverdi et al.) turn to imperial (Greek & Roman) antiquity for themes & inspiration, and one can ponder the emotionality (differing from the relatively staid previous couple of generations) in response to world conquest. Rore was writing a couple of generations after the epochal change announced by Columbus' voyage — barely longer than we are now from the end of the modern era (by my rough periodization, as e.g. articulated elsewhere) — and so one can further note the uncertainty, the tragedy, the interrogation of hubris & anguished human feeling deriving from the antique thematic material. Such an orientation is in sharp contrast to the feelings of mastery that would be consolidated with the so-called "enlightenment," i.e. the era of the subsequent "classical period" in musical terms, and is moreover prior to the regularization of rhythm e.g. via bar lines (definitively with Corelli), not to mention the (anti-polyphonic) hierarchical rigidity of recitative-continuo style. One can in turn note the impetus toward elitism deriving from these neo-imperial concerns, not only the far-flung dramatic material (that would soon manifest even more spectacularly in the "opera" genre, particularly as it came to emphasize the soloist), but the separation of "the composer" from humanity more generally — as implicitly traced by Schmelzer's discussion of divinity. (And indeed the rise of portraiture per se in this period marks a rethinking of the subject in modern terms.) In other words, this music retains the feel of a newly globalized class structure becoming intensified & yet still distended — much as now: This is music of extremes (articulated quite persuasively by Schmelzer & his group), with nothing cute or quaint. It traces a human tragedy that the "divine" De Rore was still able to feel directly — if articulate indirectly. (There is nothing of the smug perfection of e.g. Mozart here, although one might also contrast the systemization of musical affect by e.g. Marini, writing only fifty years after Rore.) This is dangerous music, without a (conceptual) net, and so some of the most dynamic to witness & grapple with the early modern (epochal) transition.9 January 2018
With their fourth album — nearly two hours of four masses by Noel Bauldeweyn — Beauty Farm heads off into unknown repertory, after largely mimicking The Sound and the Fury with two Gombert albums followed by an Ockeghem album. (The latter was also released this year, so they're increasing their pace too.) They also seem to have confirmed an emphasis on mass cycles once again, an emphasis that doesn't necessarily thrill me, given the ample repertory that is correspondingly (& badly) neglected, but I do understand: Not only are these mass cycles impressive monuments, but emphasizing a single genre has allowed these (related) ensembles to focus on counterpoint & personality, and (technical) details in general, without worrying so much about different genres & texts. So it makes sense, but hopefully soon e.g. some other motet albums will appear. The previous album — and perhaps The Sound and the Fury's last? — where the repertory per se made such an impression on me (as opposed to the interpretation of relatively known repertory) was the Pipelare double album, and in that case, I had every reason to rue not having paid more attention to Pipelare previously: There were previous albums devoted to his music, although none had managed to make a big impression on me. (That changed significantly, given the sheer originality, scope & quality involved in the tantalizing selection of four complete masses.) In the case of Bauldeweyn (ever Baldwin?), however, there had been almost nothing to hear, making him quite obscure today, and so in that sense, his music is even more of a revelation. Like Pipelare, Bauldeweyn (who was apparently younger, but didn't live as long, although all of this is sketchy) was apparently a contemporary of La Rue, with his most important works also documented by the Alamire scriptorium. In that case, he's also a direct contemporary of Josquin (again maybe not by age, but by years of peak activity), and whereas the notes suggest that Bauldeweyn is something of a bridge between Obrecht & Gombert — a perfectly good suggestion, although I don't really hear much Obrecht, personally — his music also shows some of the same rhetorical or discursive skill & focus. The previous comparison is related to the general density of Bauldeweyn's writing (at least here), which doesn't show the same predilection for rests or reduced forces as Josquin, but the textual orientation nonetheless suggests similar concerns. (One might think e.g. of a less motivically insistent version of the Josquin of Missa Malheur me bat et al. — otherwise the most Obrechtian Josquin, I suppose.) The resulting style is distinctive, and so Bauldeweyn must enter conversations regarding the greatest polyphonists of the greatest age of Western polyphony — and the album is duly added to my personal list. Beyond Pipelare, whose style shows even more vitality & variety, La Rue's Missa Incessament — one of his masterpieces, and one that would benefit from an updated interpretation — comes to mind by way of comparison for Bauldeweyn's opening Missa En douleur en tristesse, perhaps the biggest highlight. Impressive. So who or what does Beauty Farm have in store to reveal next?7 November 2017
I should also note William Kempster's most recent La Rue mass premiere — on a compilation album of mostly 20th century (& some 21st?) choral music by a student ensemble. Although not as crucially placed in La Rue's oeuvre as the Missa Pourquoy non? of Kempster's previous student choral album, the Missa de Sancto Antonio of this latest release is nonetheless highly appealing, with an enticing combination of sonic beauty & technical intrigue. It's a relatively easy mass to appreciate.29 October 2017
Although it was some of the first repertory from the c.1600 period that I really enjoyed, I've yet to hear an amazing performance of Gibbons' consort music for viols, so I decided to give the recent L'Achéron disc a listen. There's a nice tone... a certain delicacy one might say... that could also be characterized as being tentative. The recording requires active listening to engage, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but still lacks punch or impact. It probably seems like a particular letdown after Phantasm's recent Tye album, so I'm sorry if I'm being unfair to this (new to me) ensemble. I'll still dream of that perfect Gibbons album, though.16 October 2017
I welcomed a new recording devoted to Tye's consort music by The Spirit of Gambo in 2014 (which still seems very recent), as performance practice does continue to develop & become more idiomatic & sophisticated. Whereas I was excited for a change then, that wasn't necessarily the case with the even newer recording by Phantasm. The latter does include all of Tye's consort output, and doesn't employ a vocalist (which Spirit of Gambo did on only a couple of tracks), though, so in that sense, it's a more canonical program — the same 31 tracks as the classic (& dated) Savall program. I still thought, however, that this would be one of those situations where I'm slowly deciding between two excellent interpretations: That sort of thing is basically a limit case for the project here, which was devised around music for which performance practice was rapidly developing, and so for which better interpretations were always (sometimes very easily) imaginable. (Although one wouldn't say exactly the same of the contemporary improvisation that has been more of my focus the past few years, obviously, those are still "exploratory" performances, and so similar in a sense.) I haven't been feeling very engaged when I've spent time lately trying to distinguish & rank very similar, both more than adequate, performances then.... Anyway, although I've appreciated Spirt of Gambo, that didn't turn out to be the situation here at all: The Phantasm album is fantastic, and an easy choice. (On another tangent, I'm still trying to figure out which of two excellent recordings of Feldman's Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello I prefer. Kind of a silly task, as noted....) They bring such a command of the music, and project a strong sense of individuality for each piece. I should probably pause to note what a wonder it is to have this music performed so confidently & idiomatically — it certainly wasn't always this way. There's another question, though, and it's why Tye? Why does this seemingly obscure composer, someone whose vocal music has never stood out to me, occupy such a place in the history of instrumental ensemble music? Laurence Dreyfus discusses this topic in his notes, and not uninterestingly, but conclusions are scarce. Whereas Dreyfus talks about the Protestant-Catholic conflict that simmered in England throughout the period (becoming the Royalist-Puritan conflict soon enough, animated by the latter group's fear of art), it's also worth noting that Henry VIII had seized the monasteries as well, and had turned their members — craftsmen, artists, etc. — out into public space. So although Dreyfus notes Tye's Protestant "connections," the intellectual eruption of later 16th century England should be viewed in this context. It's undoubtedly why I hear some of the last flowering of the medieval artistic mindset in this music, and continue to feature it, despite its relatively late date. (I should also note that Henry's mindset regarding English monasteries was appropriation, i.e. absorbing their talents into a secular economy, but his mindset regarding Irish monasteries was soon to be suppression.) It's a strange intersection. What of the music then? Well, much of it is basically an unordered set of variations illustrating a wide variety of idiosyncratic contrapuntal treatments. The appeal (for me anyway) is not really in what it might have modeled for the future, since after all, (imperial) music of the 17th & 18th centuries is generally not my thing, but in the projection of earlier polyphonic ideas onto the "blank slate" of the instrumental medium (i.e. without a text). Note further, for instance, that this is not treble-dominated music, as was already appearing on the Continent. What does this mean? Physically, singers of high vocal parts were young (or possibly women) — or else (not so young?) men singing in other registers, i.e. less "naturally" — and for similar reasons, players of the smaller string consort instruments tended to be smaller people. So... it's not as though women & children were suddenly more respected when virtuosic high vocal (& other) parts became fashionable: Usually the opposite in the early modern period, at least in general... such that such a shift can be viewed as another appropriation. Well, let me leave things there, and refer the reader to Lawrence's excellent technical discussion of the music (which leaves these points entirely aside). And yes, his new Tye album was added to my personal list.3 October 2017
It's actually a recording made back in 2005, but I wanted to note the Compère Missa Galeazescha recently released on Arcana. I had forgotten about it, but this production directed by Paolo Da Col, bringing together multiple ensembles, was included in the first issue of the music magazine Classic Voice. I did have a pointer to the recording here at the FAQ, courtesy of information from Da Col, but hadn't sought out the magazine to hear it. Anyway, I don't know what became of the magazine, or if it's still around, but this is an impressive production worth remembering. The mass by Compère is from his time in Milan, from the local tradition cultivating masses with alternative texts, rather than those of the usual mass ordinary — a mass of motets, as it's often called. This is not the first time such repertory has been explored, particularly since there's material of this type with Josquin's name on it (although now thought to be by a different Josquin), but this is an especially lavish production. I'm not into the big fanfares, but some of the instrumental tracks are quite enjoyable & direct, and the performance in general is first rate. The cycle itself shows a real majesty that I hadn't heard much from Compère's music in the past. (The more recent Orlando Consort recording does open with a Magnificat about which similar comments could be applied.) This was obviously meant to be showy music, and it's given a showy production here (not so unlike e.g. Cantica Symphonia's Dufay albums with various instruments, although here with even more). Many of the intervening tracks aren't by Compère, with some of the best moments coming from Agricola, and there is also a relatively extensive investment in Weerbecke's music — also from Milan, and a composer who has yet to be truly featured on a commercial album (and in fact, Odhecaton was already one of the few ensembles to program one of his motets): His music comes off as some of the most straightforward here, with clear phrasing & linear momentum. The Compère cycle is more involved, and is projected here with excellent energy, as well as strong melodic & rhythmic sense. This album should have been less obscure already.17 September 2017
Following on their album devoted to Arnold & Hugo de Lantins, which was a secular program, Le Miroir de Musique has released a Tinctoris album that also includes mass movements. The result is something I have to characterize as a Huelgas Ensemble-style program, mixing various genres: Although that has not been my preference, the quality of the interpretation, together with the quality of the music of course, makes this release too compelling to quibble, and so it's been added to my personal list. The previous album listed was that by the Clerks Group, which consisted entirely of two mass cycles. That performance was never particularly compelling, and actually handling these masses via excerpts seems OK. There is certainly far more of interest in this newer program than the two masses. Besides some motets & liturgical music, the secular songs are featured, and this comes on the heels of Ensemble Leones including a couple of Tinctoris pieces on their album Straight from the Heart — a notable inclusion for the simple reason that they come from the Segovia Manuscript, rather than the Chansonnier Cordiforme, which otherwise forms the basis for the program. Those two pieces appear again on Secret Consolations, an album that also notes that there are no pieces known to be from the last decades of Tinctoris's life. Most of the music appears to date from his time in Naples, and given the approach of performing some Latin works on instruments, a clear comparison for this new album is in fact Cantica Symphonia's L'homme armé cycle, from a Neapolitan manuscript associated with Busnois. There's no clear attribution for that cycle, and Tinctoris as its author is not out of the question. Anyway, although there are similarities, Secret Consolations comes off as less grand or stately. When this ensemble does perform an all-vocal mass movement, they do it admirably, showing clear potential for that sort of music. Mass cycles still appear to be the prestige repertory for this era, so I suppose one can expect Le Miroir de Musique to record an album dedicated to them soon. In the meantime, I welcome these secular pieces as well. They come off quite coherently & with wonderfully varied sonorities.10 July 2017
I should note the latest issue in the Orlando Consort Machaut Edition, Sovereign Beauty. There isn't much more to say about this fourth album, but I did incorporate it into my previous "list" file. As far as the series goes, I don't know the exact plans, but counting by number of pieces — and I made no effort to tabulate the length of pieces, although obviously the Mass is substantially longer — they're just under a third of the way. This latest album is mostly early works, and doesn't feature any first recordings. Several of the lais have not been recorded, but the longer piece here is Un lay de consolation, which is both somewhat uncertain (as far as Machaut's work goes, which is generally uncommonly secure), since it appears in only one major source, and unusual in that the stanzas combine into two-voice counterpoint. The Medieval Ensemble of London had recorded the piece. There are some other favorites here, but it's mostly about filling in the project. Such an emphasis on these early works will probably be useful for the quartet as it moves back into Machaut's later music.7 July 2017
It was actually released in December, but I didn't learn of Tetraktys' Matteo da Perugia album until more recently. (The Etcetera label continues to lack distribution here, although its production standards remain high.) This is an obvious followup to their Chantilly Codex trilogy, although Matteo's music comes from the Modena MS, where it's by far the largest single contribution to what is otherwise a manuscript of many more Ars Subtilior songs. The liner notes, mostly by Kees Boeke, are rather technical, discussing the music & text of each of the pieces in turn, including some comparisons to other pieces in the repertory. Matteo's music thus comes off as less improvisatory than that of some contemporaries, for which arguments have long been made that they may be subsequently notated improvisations, and much more carefully prepared as regards both consonance & text — the latter something that Matteo apparently tended to write for himself. The musical result is distinctive & sophisticated, with a variety of allusions (as is typical of the style). Boeke also discusses instrumental factors including text underlay, and intervallic structures in some lines. This sort of analysis provides a welcome antidote to what has sometimes become a dogmatic intent to perform everything from this era on voices alone — not that that style hasn't had its own triumphs. Boeke & Tetraktys are in excellent positions to interpret Matteo's music, not only because of their previous series — and note that Tetraktys continues to evolve as an ensemble, with a previously unknown soprano (Stefanie True, who is wonderfully idiomatic, and very much in keeping with the traditional sound of the ensemble) fronting this new album — but because of various previous endeavors. Following some modest early attention (including as early as the 1930s), then a more-intriguing-than-satisfying full program LP by the Medieval Ensemble of London, the Huelgas Ensemble (as so often, in this & other repertory) produced a coherent anthology in 1998, and this was followed quickly by a Mala Punica release in 2000, on which Boeke is a prominent participant. Whereas the Huelgas album includes mass movements & an independent motet, it does illustrate 5 songs, including 2 in common with this new production. Mala Punica recorded an entire program of secular songs, also with 2 in common (which suggests the breadth of Matteo's output), although particularly by the "Erato era" of their recording career, Memelsdorff et al.'s style came off as far too orchestrated & busy for me — basically baroque. Here, and via the Chantilly series & otherwise, Boeke brings the technical facility gained in that project into a more idiomatically medieval conception, though. So it was added to my personal list. Whereas I won't claim that it blows the Huelgas interpretation away on all points, it's revelatory for its sense of detail & just how clearly it articulates Matteo's intricate formal counterpoint. It really answers any lingering doubts as to the quality of the music. This year continues to be slow for medieval releases (and this one is actually from last year), but quality has been high, as this is another very worthwhile offering.18 April 2017
In what I can only assume is a coincidence, Hyperion Records — which seems to have renewed a dedication to medieval repertory — released Beneath the Northern Star by the Orlando Consort & Music for the 100 Years' War by the Binchois Consort in consecutive months. Although the programs don't have the same motivations, and don't cover exactly the same time period, they both feature English polyphony from much of the 14th century & into the 15th: Indeed, they both include pieces by Power & Dunstaple, and even an identical track, the "musicians' motet" by the shadowy Alanus. It's been a while since this music was featured on a program, particularly given that technical aspects of performance practice continue to improve, and so these feel like well-timed submissions & in turn a fortunate juxtaposition.
Beneath the Northern Star is the more technical of the two programs, meaning that the pieces seem to have been selected in order to illustrate musical & contrapuntal developments, rather than to connect with broad historical events. In that, I find it to be very successful: The notes do describe the pieces, but there is no hint of the mechanics of how the program was actually chosen. Given its technical orientation, that seems like a crucial point, and I'm curious how selection functioned in practice, but we do get to hear the results. (Admittedly, this is how it normally works. We aren't told how programs are specifically selected, but this one takes in a lot of territory.) The Orlando Consort take a real "nuts & bolts" approach to articulating the music as well, with an emphasis on clarity in all lines, such that consonances themselves come into focus according to the logic of the individual pieces. (In other words, external — typically modern — notions of consonance are not imposed on the music a priori. Some of these pieces are allowed to pose questions such as what is counterpoint, what is consonance, etc.) This is a very welcome & even critical aspect of the performance, given that this era — & the English output in particular — was critical to a changing sense of musical consonance & counterpoint: Much of this music would not be considered "proper" only a few decades later. Part of the approach here involves forgoing explicitly sustaining vocal tones: Such an approach seems to draw upon the work of John Potter et al., most recently on Conductus 3, where lower voices take on their own phrasing contours rather than simply hold long notes. Such an approach then relies on the resonance of the space itself to supplement the feeling of simultaneous harmony by leaving those tones hanging in the air. On this point, I've had some criticism of the recorded sound on some recent Hyperion releases, but I think they've navigated the issues very well on Beneath the Northern Star: One can hear the voices clearly, closely, with some resonance audible but not obscuring the actual articulation with its echoes. The ideal situation, then, and unfortunately I don't have such a situation myself, would be to play the recording in a rather resonant space. In other words, although resonances are important in this repertory, if they're allowed to obscure direct articulation, one simply can't recover the ability to hear what the singers are doing once it's committed to record. In person, without the reduction of a recording, one's ear can choose. (And since some of this repertory involved itinerant courts, it likely did not involve the "perfect" space anyway.) Moreover, the time span of the program overlaps Machaut on both ends, and one can thus appreciation the elegant articulation of the quartet's Machaut Edition as expressing a universe parallel to this English material. This is a further juxtaposition by the Orlando Consort, then, making recording Beneath the Northern Star seem especially well-timed. It was added to my personal list.
It's curious that, as these two ensembles take up Dunstaple's music again, the most impressive full program continues to be the old Orlando Consort Dunstaple recording from 1995. Perhaps the groundwork of articulating this English repertory will now pave the way for new, more sophisticated Dunstaple programs & interpretations. After all, he's often described as one of Western Music's most influential composers, so the relative gap in recordings is surprising. Of course, these things tend to come in waves, such that e.g. the previous recording I had most admired for the English 14th century was Diabolus in Musica's album from 2002 — a long time on the scale of medieval performance practice, although I'm often surprised to see how long it's been since a particular recording appeared. Time flies. (Anyway, it's closer chronologically to the Orlando Dunstaple album now than it is to the present day.) That album is highly resonant, featuring quite a bit of sustaining tones, but also reflected Diabolus in Musica's extensive experience with specific Ars Antiqua genres. Anyway, it had already followed interest in this repertory from famous English ensembles that had formed in the 1980s into the early 90s — the peak of contemporary medieval production. (Exploration of Old Hall etc. at that time had already deemphasized Dunstaple somewhat, at least relative to attention in the earlier 20th century. It was a time to expand the repertory beyond the big names.) Now it's famous English performers again....
As already suggested, including by its title, Music for the 100 Years' War is more concerned with historical events than contrapuntal curiosities, but of course it does seek quality music. Still, some of the tracks don't do much for me. (I find the Agincourt Carol rather abrasive for instance.) The style is also less intricate than what the Orlando Consort projects, although with plenty of sophistication of its own, particularly given the Binchois Consort's experiences in tuning c.1420 repertory. But there is quite a bit of part doubling, and more sustain — in short, less emphasis on clear articulation, but one does get a powerful (& smoother) sound, with an emphasis on soaring lines. (The recorded sound is also satisfying.) This is also something of a "multimedia" project, paired with English alabaster carvings of the period. Although it might not fare as well, given the way that I've approached the juxtaposition of these two releases that seem to demand comparison, illuminating different historical cross currents across media is a fine idea, and Music for the 100 Years' War is an enjoyable album that features some particularly elaborate music by Dunstaple.16 April 2017
I already noted the curiosity of the relatively new ensemble Beauty Farm, working in the same manner from the same monastery in Austria as The Sound and the Fury, releasing two Gombert albums followed by an Ockeghem album — just as The Sound and the Fury had done. Well, Beauty Farm's Gombert programs, concentrating on the motets, were rather different. And now, instead of duplicating that earlier Ockeghem program (which it had been my understanding they had intended to do), Beauty Farm has released Ockeghem Masses, featuring only half of the same program, namely the Missa L'homme armé. I had not been particularly taken with Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé, despite its seemingly significant historical position, until recently: I very much enjoyed the Ensemble Nusmido recording (another young ensemble), and thought they finally made the piece make sense. (I also enjoy their recorder consort versions of the Busnoys & Ockeghem companion pieces.) I feel bad to abandon them so soon, but Beauty Farm takes a similar approach to phrasing, and ends up with a more forecful reading. It's quite enjoyable. The Missa Quinti toni has not been recorded as frequently, and my favorite had long been the Lyrichord recording of the three-part masses. This is another obscure reading, I suppose, much like Nusmido, so Beauty Farm tackled some pieces with performance I already enjoyed, but which were probably not so widely known. Regarding the three-voice masses, there is an offhand remark in the notes about the Missa Quinti toni being the only securely attributed one, and I suppose that makes sense, given that the Missa Sine nomine (which I have long enjoyed) never fit very well into an Ockeghem chronology. (I don't know any further details on this remark, however.) Still, I lament this turn of events (too), since these interesting mid-15th century masses seem to disappear from the repertory whenever someone determines they weren't by one of the most famous composers — or worse, are anonymous. Too bad. So I did add this new recording to my personal list, and it's enjoyable — I don't want to suggest that it isn't — but I do also hope that Beauty Farm will tackle some less-traveled material again next.25 March 2017
The release of Ensemble Gilles Binchois' recording of Isaac's Missa Virgo prudentissima was delayed a bit by acquisitions in the music publishing business, but did nonetheless happen last year. The album marks perhaps the ensemble's most direct essay illustrating the height of Franco-Flemish polyphonic style, although they had previously recorded the Spanish sixteenth century — a time & place that supported some of the older trends, together with some of its own innovations — somewhat extensively. So this music is more modern than in most of their discography, but certainly not extreme in any way. (Indeed, they not only recorded Palestrina in 1993, but have continued to examine various old-fashioned repertory surviving in practice as late as into the nineteenth century.) This is also Isaac's most elaborate large format setting, although it does retain some of the emphasis on chant & homophony that marks his most functional music, i.e. his enormous output of Propers etc. — emphasizing clear articulation as it does in forging the composite Franco-Flemish-Austrian style that was to have such a lasting effect on music in Central & Eastern Europe. In this sense, the present liner notes suggest the Missa Virgo prudentissima as a particularly "mixed" piece, an elaborate cycle intended for Maximilian's coronation in Rome, and so mediating the various stylistic influences, but not toward simplicity as in so much of Isaac's output. The six-voice counterpoint thus underscores the gravity of the occasion, making this his "most important Ordinary" by at least some measures. (This is the second complete recording, after a 1998 production from Munich.) The interpretation itself shows a careful attention to plainchant, which both plays to the long-term strength of the ensemble & reflects what seems often to be Isaac's own concern. With the mixed vocal ensemble, and the sharpness of the sopranos, not to mention the frequent alternation of Isaac's formal style, the music tends to soar & return in compact phrases that emphasize its clarity amidst a big overall sound. Framed by a couple of Isaac's polyphonic Propers pieces, the program is thus a clear & admirable expression of (apparently?) his most elaborate large-scale cycle.4 January 2017
Maurice Bourbon continues his Josquin mass cycle series with Josquin: Messes Pange lingua & de beata Virgine, apparently the sixth album (or the fourth, according to the current notes, which makes little sense) in a planned series of ten. (Note that, as opposed to The Tallis Scholars, Bourbon has now re-recorded the Missa Pange lingua, and his earlier recording does not number in the current series.) These are both two of Josquin's best known cycles, and perhaps the most closely based on imitative harmonizing of plainchant: In that sense, they present something of an ascetic return to an emphasis on chant amid the turbulence of religious strife, and as emerging from the most elaborate contrapuntal expressions of the period. (This is why various people have viewed Josquin as anticipating the Counter-Reformation, although obviously I'm more interested in music prior to those events. Note that such "events" conspicuously include the beginnings of New World genocide as well.) This is well-known music, then, and I didn't feel as though this newest interpretation added much to the discography: It basically follows what one would expect, given its precedents both for the singers themselves & for the repertory more broadly. That said, there are also some niceties of rhythm & tempo that might be taken as idiosyncratic at times. A motet program presumably would have been more worthwhile, although I do welcome Bourbon finishing his intended series. Perhaps there are some revelations still to come.3 January 2017
I had always had misgivings about albums from Cappella Pratensis, since they usually seemed to be softly articulated, hazy, just not very forceful or confident. (Their strength has been attention to plainchant, using original notation around a choirbook, and otherwise a non-dogmatic approach.) In fact, in keeping with the previous entry on Josquin, even their prior album featuring the Missa Ave maris stella (released in 2014) left me with some similar misgivings (despite adding it to my personal list). In fairness, this issue might have arisen in part from the way their albums were recorded. However, with their Visions of Joy album, focused on La Rue's Missa Cum jocunditate, the misgivings vanish: This new release projects a great sense of gravity & intensity, a real grittiness — not "hazy" at all (and perhaps this is due in part to some influence from Graindelavoix?). So this is a very welcome development, and hopefully it will continue. Whereas I think the new album is one of the best-performed albums in the La Rue discography, and indeed for music of this era, the material itself does not excite me so much, unfortunately. (It seems strange that I'm continuing to recommend their prior Josquin album instead, since the performance style isn't as developed, but that's the situation. One might think that there'd be many great recordings of Josquin, but that simply isn't the case. Somehow, there are more good ones devoted to La Rue these days.) For some reason, the Hilliard Ensemble selected the Missa Cum jocunditate — with its early ostinato style & buoyant mood — for their EMI album devoted to La Rue, certainly one of the most significant of its time, and that choice was (apparently) copied by Henry's Eight when they recorded a related program several years afterward (but almost twenty years ago now). Although I've found some of La Rue's earliest masses to be intriguing, this one just doesn't do it for me. Perhaps it's too straightforward. (In this, I contrast with the recent Missa Inviolata recording from September, since I found that cycle to be quite compelling in its internal rhythmic proliferation. Perhaps it's also time for a new interpretation of the Missa Sancta dei genitrix, a later ostinato mass.) The remainder of the program doesn't help much: It's based on confraternity manuscripts & practice from 's-Hertogenbosch (also home of the ensemble), and although I appreciate adding polyphony, instead of only plainchant for the liturgical pieces framing the mass, the choice of pieces is rather idiosyncratic & not terribly appealing. I don't understand the choice to use the separate O salutaris hostia, for instance, despite that it was a known practice, and indeed La Rue's own Missa de Sancta Anna survives in only that form (i.e. without a section of the mass setting). This is not the case for the Missa Cum jocunditate, which expands to five voices (with a homophonic character) in the Credo (a procedure La Rue reprised for the similarly themed Missa Ave Maria), which survives intact, though. Indeed, the overall program is remarkably similar to their Josquin program, where the latter is oriented on Sistine Chapel practices. Both include a worthwhile, concluding motet, for which there is "some evidence," at least in the Low Countries. Indeed, the Sistine program seems retroactively motivated by Northern practice — which, of course, would have been a major influence at the time. In this case, there are also tracks with organ, and I enjoy those: The sixteenth century organ has a wonderful sound, and is played with great command & grace. So again, the performance is excellent, even if the program is strange. The mass cycle's recognizable sense of joyful triumph should make it popular, however: Visions of Joy becomes a quite reasonable choice for introducing the general public to large-scale Franco-Flemish polyphony (pace the caveat about the overall program).30 November 2016
I confess that I had not paid much attention to the Missa Di dadi, attributed to Josquin going back to at least Petrucci, largely because it is not considered to be one of his representative or mature works. Indeed this piece, particularly as performed so crisply & articulately by The Tallis Scholars, might not even be by Josquin, and so its situation only underlines our relatively tenuous knowledge of his overall output & timeline. At one point, I expected these questions to resolve themselves, at least to a far greater extent than they have, but apparently the fact that labeling a piece as by "Josquin" was a great way to bring attention to it, not to mention the existence of (possibly more than one) contemporary composers with similar names, has made a mess of the situation such that it might never be resolved. Anyway, the Missa Di dadi isn't much like Josquin's securely attributed mature cycles, unless one counts the tendency to build to a climax, something many mass cycles of the earlier generation did not do, but it's a rather masterful essay in its own style, more evocative of the years during which Josquin (if we even have a sense of his actual age) would have been young. On this point, there seems to be little doubt regarding the earliness of the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, and this is apparently the first recording of the cycle, although Josquin's song of the same name is found on a few anthologies: Frankly, this is a deeply flawed cycle, and quite forgettable. I don't blame Peter Phillips for including it, not at all, and hey, now it's been recorded. The notes from the distributor also state that this is album six of nine in their Josquin series, which seems to mark a quite concrete plan, revealed (at least to me) here for the first time — i.e. they apparently do not intend to redo their earliest Josquin interpretations (which are also deeply flawed, yet of some of his most famous music). The previous album was nice enough, but features some of Josquin's best-known settings, basically in the style of harmonized chant (and I'll have a bit more to say about the Missa Ave maris stella, likely in the next entry), so that's been broadly appealing to the public. Here we have something more unusual — and I might imagine the Missa Di dadi as coming from the circle of Busnoys or Caron (per a recent entry in this space): The notion of using the throw of dice also appeals to me, both because of the (continuing) 20th century trend for stochastic music, and for my own further exploration around medieval concepts of chance or fortune. (Josquin's Missa Fortuna desperata is, of course, an explicitly relevant setting on this exact theme, with its musical "turning of the wheel.") Despite that I only enjoy half of this program, I added it to my personal list. The Missa Di dadi does seem to be something of a monument, to whatever it actually is.29 November 2016
Coincidentally, I'll return immediately to the Huelgas Ensemble & their long-time "unicorn" production of the Cypriot "O"-antiphons, indeed their second recording (from 1989, after a recording from 1983): Björn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix have now made their own recording of this cycle, including a variety of both Eastern & Western chants for context. Whereas the Huelgas recording used instruments on some lines, and emphasized doubling & parallel motion amongst the complexity of the isorhythmic construction, yielding (perhaps paradoxically) a relatively sparse contrapuntal result, Graindelavoix continues with the sort of gritty chant-based style that they recently developed around Ars Antiqua motets & especially the Machaut Mass (as discussed here in May, particularly regarding its drones) — the companion album to this, their Cypriot Vespers disc, per Schmelzer. The notes also attribute the entire Turin manuscript to the previously obscure Jean Hanelle, and ask how single authorship affects reception of the rather large manuscript. Apparently preparation of the manuscript was supervised personally by Hanelle from 1434-36 after he had left Cyprus. His is now the largest known output of the era, although the manuscript itself shows no sign of practical use. Schmelzer uses some of these facts to interrogate the entire idea of a masterpiece, and I continue to be impressed by the isorhythmic antiphon cycle: Who knows how many large-scale isorhythmic works of the period — paralleling parts of Dufay's output in that form, in this case, and Hanelle is now claimed as one of Dufay's teachers — are lost to us, but within that relative vacuum, this remains fascinating music. (And I enjoy Hanelle's secular music as well.) In any case, the cycle thrives with the more flexible & melodic (purely vocal) articulation from Graindelavoix, making this another item for my personal list, replacing what had been one of the oldest recordings in the Huelgas DHM disc. The (still?) strange-sounding sort of "backward" cadential ornament pioneered by Van Nevel is retained, however. Schmelzer actually attributes the affective success of this cycle to the careful placement of text in the closely supervised manuscript. (He also improves the tempo relations in his interpretation, as more a result of improved general understanding over the past 30 years.) Although the unique character of this cycle doesn't suggest that lessons of the interpretation will be applicable to much other music, the album does build conceptually on Graindelavoix's previous crossings of e.g. Ars Antiqua & Machaut (as noted), and even earlier efforts such as their increasingly iconic (and quite ample) Cecus album, with its own crossings. So what's next from this increasingly intriguing group?14 November 2016
I had no idea that the Huelgas Ensemble has been releasing so many albums for Sony on their Deutsche Harmonia Mundi imprint the past few years, but a correspondent recently let me know. In fact, that information, which included several albums about which I had been totally unaware (presumably because "majors" feel no need to publicize), came only days before I would have been confronted with the existence of their new Caron album anyway: It appeared on a listing I regularly check. It seems a little strange for the Huelgas Ensemble to continue their long-time series of "selections" albums (here, canonically, with a mass cycle formed of movements from five individual mass cycles) with Caron, considering the recent & very extensive Sound and the Fury set (not to mention that group's landmark earlier album), but that's just what they've done. One might even portray this as the opposite of the Pipelare situation, where a Huelgas Ensemble album (this time with a full mass setting!) was followed 18 years later by the Sound and the Fury album that really cemented that composer's reputation for me. Regardless of such niceties, it's great that Caron continues to receive attention after so much neglect, and the Huelgas album is actually among their most compelling performance-wise. The mass sections are given emphatic & strong rhythmic articulations, clearly illustrating their various intriguing qualities. The chansons, as on the Pipelare album & others, are given a more idiosyncratic interpretation, performed in multiple versions leaving out one voice or another — so as to illustrate various musical relations, per Van Nevel. The chanson performances are not the strength of The Sound and the Fury set — and indeed I mistakenly believed something I read about this reduced set being somehow canonical — and so the Huelgas interpretations are generally welcome, although done in this strange way, since they include a couple of different songs. Van Nevel also casually remarks that Caron may have been in the circle of Busnoys in Naples and may be the author of the cycle of six L'homme armé masses (most recently attributed to Busnoys in a recent tour de force album, but of course the Huelgas had already recorded sections as well). His remark is so offhand that I can't even tell how serious he is. In any case, while this album has its appealing qualities, and Van Nevel continues to be one of the most knowledgeable people working in the field, it's tough to prefer a brief set of extracts. I'd still like to see an entire album devoted to the chansons.
The strangeness of Van Nevel's continuing program choices is even more evident in the Malheur me bat album released last year that I (also) only just noticed. How is it that a "major," of all things, puts out such a weird "music nerd" album? I don't understand that, but as a music nerd, I was interested in listening to Van Nevel's musical deconstruction of Malheur me bat, a song he describes as the most famous composition in the Phrygian mode, and as one whose original version — even whose text — will never be known. So this program employs various extracts, including e.g. performing sections of Josquin's Agnus Dei with only some of its parts, to illustrate aspects of this piece. They even vocalize an organ piece by Cabezón, and if Van Nevel is to be taken literally, the singers wore masks for that! Indeed, the album starts with a mysterious air, as various sections do not have semantic articulation, so as to emphasize the unknown quality regarding the original lyrics. This mysterious air is, of course, reflected in the album title, but also makes for a rather inarticulate album, one that seems to want to hide. This is what Van Nevel says that Malheur me bat itself does, before being definitively "unmasked" by Josquin. So Van Nevel finds his setting to be definitive, I guess, and thus ends a rather strange album (that also includes extracts of other masses already recorded complete by others) with it. Anyway, it's good to know that this sort of production has been occurring: It seems almost like a public seminar.13 November 2016
Although I was very enthusiastic about Beauty Farm's first album, devoted to Gombert motets, I guess I never did provide much detail for my appreciation of the music on my personal list. Now with Gombert Motets II, not only has Beauty Farm made its second album another Gombert album, just as The Sound and the Fury had done, but they've announced a third album for next spring devoted to Ockeghem, and to include the Missa L'homme armé — also as The Sound and the Fury had done on their third album, albeit without duplicating the entire program. Regardless of this oddity, and it is indeed rather odd in my opinion, the second Gombert album is quite welcome, and once again features some fine motets. I've recently lamented that motets of the era — and Gombert is "end of era" for me — aren't being recorded much lately, so this is an obvious exception. Personally, I'd like to see Beauty Farm direct similar attention to Josquin's motets. Four hours of Josquin motet classics, with this kind of attention to detail & energy? That would be fantastic. In any case, I'm happy that Beauty Farm continue to record, since I particularly enjoy their style. At some point, maybe I'll finally say something more specific about the individual motets on their Gombert programs.26 October 2016
Marc Lewon & associates continue to make a welcome assault on the vast lacuna of late fifteenth century & early sixteenth century secular music on recording, this time with Straight from the Heart from the Chansonnier Cordiforme. The latter is clearly one of the leading, if not clearly the leading, source of its era (c.1470) for such chansons (& beyond, since it includes Italian pieces & even one Spanish song). The earlier Consort of Musicke recording is of course a classic as a triple album from 1979. Although I find many recordings from that era to be grating, especially as regards tuning & ensemble blend, I could still warm up to the Consort of Musicke performances for some reason, probably mostly the great music itself. Nonetheless, a new performance is very welcome, and I've added it to my personal list. The new program is much shorter, but well chosen so as to illustrate a variety of genres from the manuscript, as well as a variety of performance styles that have been or can be used in this repertory. It still sounds very familiar, presumably on account of familiarity with the songs themselves, but also because David Fallows is once again centrally involved, and indeed his arrangements from the old triple album are often used again here. (I also heartily agree with Fallows' crack in the notes about how bass lines became so boring after this era, and for about 500 years! I mentioned something similar in the previous entry.) Although not all of the interpretive styles are exactly to my taste, the variety is welcome, and the result is an immediately compelling album that is not only enjoyable for us long-time participants in this project, but would seem to make a great introduction too. (So Marc, how about a Busnoys album? None of his songs from the chansonnier were included in this program....) If you're reading this because you're interested in the other repertory I discuss, and might have a vague interest in medieval (secular) music, this would seem to be a great album for you too. The notes do say which pieces are in which style, how they're performed, etc., so that part is easy to follow.25 October 2016
Generally speaking, I've been more interested in listening to ensembles moving from earlier music to later music, e.g. working with Machaut, and then performing Ars Subtilior, etc. Not that there's only one way to do historical performance, but this approach does have the advantage of following the historical arc of a piece, i.e. it sounds new (rather than old) relative to what the group did before — in much the same way that all creative music sounded new relative to its own precedents. Anyway, the Brabant Ensemble's recording of La Rue is more of a retrospective look from an ensemble that has mostly recorded music of later decades. It's true that they've already recorded Brumel & Mouton, but both of those contemporaries of La Rue are known for their "modern" chordal style, i.e. their music fits more easily into a general sixteenth century aesthetic. It's hard not to hear the doubled, mixed choir in this way, right from the opening, what with its soaring highs & staid lower lines, but the disc nonetheless makes an important contribution to the discography: The relatively early Missa Nuncqua fue pena major (on a villancico by Urrede) had only appeared completely on a rather obscure recording, and the mature Missa Inviolata is a premiere. I wrote the prior before reading the liner notes by Rice, and there he does emphasize things like chordal or homophonic passages & makes note of his performance decisions to slow the pulse at some points. It's no secret that I'm no fan of the latter technique, decried by Josquin among others, although it did quickly become a feature of the sixteenth century, with its generally more placid & smooth polyphony. Here there's also a similar & related tendency to sectionalize the music & reduce each to a particular gesture. Again, such an approach reflects the Counter-Reformation, for which composers adopted a simplified approach in order to emphasize comprehensibility for the public. (Much of the simplification might be said to have focused on the bass, whereas La Rue wrote great, dynamic bass lines.) The Magnificat performance, using alternation (as was/is typical), is consequently the most immediately ear-catching on the album, with the later mass — and its relatively smooth style — coming off better than the earlier one too. The Missa Inviolata does present as a significant piece, one with no immediate analog in La Rue's output despite not possessing a distinctive organizing trait (as some of his extraordinary masses do), and the album is well worth hearing. The energy of the group becomes infectious, and the Missa Inviolata in particular paints an amazing sonic portrait. Perhaps the more modern orientation of the performance will bring more attention to La Rue.
Not unlike some other albums featuring a La Rue mass, most recently Missa Pourquoy non?, but going back to Missa Incessament, etc., despite some misgivings regarding the interpretation, the Missa Inviolata makes this disc too intriguing to ignore. It thus finds its way onto my personal list. The filigree approach to selfhood & internalization, constantly leading further inside itself, while apparently criticized by some writers as inaudible, ultimately makes the Missa Inviolata one of La Rue's most intriguing. The polished distance of the present ensemble might even be an asset there.
Finally, the present liner notes again assert that the mass is the center of La Rue's oeuvre, which I think is far from clear, but regardless of whether some people feel that way, where are the other programs? I sometimes feel as though I ought to be tempering my criticism for fear that, some decade hence, I'll be lamenting the lack of mass recordings. (It's also fair to wonder what my remark really means, given that I've just featured this album for one of its masses.) Nonetheless, I must openly wonder why such a preponderance of recordings of music from this era continues to focus on the mass in recent years.19 September 2016
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 past remarks.
To early music CD Index with search.
To jazz remarks.
To Early Music FAQ.Todd M. McComb <email@example.com>