Remarks on Recent Recordings

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

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


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

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

September 2014

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

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

August 2014

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

July 2014

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

June 2014

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

May 2014

Discussion

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

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

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


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Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>