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.
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 in 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
It took a little extra time to find its way to me, but I do want to make some brief remarks on the Orlando Consort's third volume of Machaut songs. I dutifully added it to the same entry on my personal list as the previous two volumes. Perhaps I should make the same remark about the recording quality here: I don't understand why it has been or would be a challenge to record this music clearly, but the production continues to improve in this regard. (I can't help but think that there have been conscious decisions to record reverberations, rather than the voice more directly, in accord with some sort of historicist aesthetic. I really don't agree with this notion, regardless of whether a church audience — which wouldn't be relevant for most of Machaut's work anyway — would have heard a lot of its music only indirectly in this sense.) Anyway, I want to hear the singers clearly, and with A Burning Heart, we get more of that experience. The vocal technique is increasingly impressive, particularly in details of articulation & tuning, and indeed the way those two aspects interact. After some tentative qualities to the first volume, it seems the Orlando Consort is really finding their stride with this material. And it's only some of my favorite.29 July 2016
I've also been oblivious to the last few releases from Tetraktys, put out as Olive Music imprints by Etcetera: They haven't been released in the US, and there was no mention by anyone. Sigh. This is a group whose interests overlap my own considerably.... Anyway, I did stumble upon the albums myself, eventually, so let me recap the three most recent:
Released in 2013 was the Johannes Heer Song Book, a personal Swiss-German collection of music from the early 1500s. The material comes off a little stiffly to me, and the compiler was somewhat isolated after his studies in France, but it's long been considered a fascinating slice of repertory from the period. Tetraktys give a credible performance as a quartet of one singer & three instrumentalists. This is later music than the ensemble has previously performed.
The ensemble was enlarged to two singers & four instrumentalists for their next album, devoted to early fifteenth century chansons & released in 2014. (Note that Baptiste Romain, whose own recent album as a leader was featured here in March, and which features material from roughly the same time period, appears on all three of the albums discussed in this entry.) This material dates from roughly a century earlier than that on the previous album, and is selected so as to take a rather detailed look at technical transitions from Ars Subtilior style to smoother "Renaissance" contours. It's quite an achievement, particularly based as it is on this ensemble's (and these performers') extensive prior experience with Ars Subtilior repertory, such that these shifts can be portrayed as arising from history, rather than retroactively isolating the Ars Subtilior itself as somehow outside of proper historical narrative. Much of the material has appeared on programs by other ensembles, but this is the first to gather it in this way, not to mention provide such a detailed presentation. Consequently, it was a belated addition to my personal list. I'm actually feeling rather embarrassed that someone released an album, back in 2014, of material for which I had been calling for more attention, and I only recently noticed. This is very much one of the most intriguing recent chanson albums, and so hopefully my lapse in attention didn't harm its reception.
The third volume from the Codex Chantilly is actually a new album this spring, although it remains coincidence that I noticed it so soon after its release. (Most of the delay in discussing it here is simply the delay in obtaining a copy from overseas.) The first two volumes were already on my personal list, and as that discussion has been updated to reflect, the interpretations continue to gain in stature with experience. Here we have three vocalists, two who are new to the project, and again four instrumentalists (with only one change). Silvia Tecardi continues, together with Kees Boeke himself, from the beginning of the project. The singing continues to become more supple, a trait that seems important for capturing the freewheeling imagination of the style. There's no mention of whether a fourth volume is planned, but hopefully the project will continue. It has taken many years & much practice in order to bring this music (at least to this degree) to life, and there is surely more life that can be found in this repertory.3 June 2016
It's probably fair to say that I haven't given the Cantigas de Santa María sufficient attention, perhaps not in the site overall (pace our massive discography), but more specifically, among my personal interests. After all, they form a huge body of music, one of the largest surviving sources for (quasi-)secular monophony of the medieval era. Perhaps my relative coolness toward them can be seen first in that "quasi" qualification, i.e. that the Cantigas exist as a hybrid genre, and not merely a hybrid genre, but one that largely reproduced earlier melodies. In the latter sense, the technical-musical significance often comes down to having preserved melodies that would have otherwise been lost — although likely as contrafacta. In that sense, they don't have the "rush of creation," i.e. forging a melodic style themselves, but rather consolidate & catalog it. Moreover, regarding the contrafacta point, such a consolidation involves a dominant organizing logic, i.e. transforming preexisting material into songs about the Virgin, or applying preexisting (musical) material to stories about the Virgin. That this preexisting material involves various influences — such that one can perceive an echo of Andalusian style, for instance — is one of its charms, but also suggests a fundamentally conservative project. That the various passions involved are transposed into the register of acceptable religious narrative only underscores this point. All that said, the new album from Discantus is both directly enjoyable & worth a listen, as well as presents an opportunity to interrogate (briefly, at least here) the feminist implications of the Cantigas: Can this massive collection function as some kind of emancipatory project because or in spite of its nature as technically conservative, and very literally an act of conservation? Discantus is one of many all-female medieval ensembles, an act of formation that seems to involve a bit of subversion on its face, but is also the ensemble with the closest connection to other interpreters of medieval music that I typically enjoy. Surprisingly, this is their first album to feature the Cantigas, and it displays a wide affective range: There is festivity, melancholy, etc. Voices alternate to suggest dances, as well as modulations of collective expression, etc. The Cantigas are also supplemented by other sources associated with women in the period, to add some genre variety to the album: The result is a lively & accomplished interpretation that spans Marian production of the period, beyond the Cantigas per se. Whereas a source such as the Codex Las Huelgas originates in a female setting, though, and whereas the late troubadours presented in the program have direct connections to the Cantigas themselves, were those Cantigas ever really women's production or activity? The evidence suggests not, or at least to the extent that the underlying material might have been associated, it was clearly masculinized in the work of Alfonso X & his compilers. Is this not the only conclusion? So how might one further peel away such a layer, and reveal underlying practice? I actually believe that Discantus has accomplished a step in that direction via the basic affectivity of their production. The material continues to be of only intermittent technical-musical interest, however, at least relative to the troubadours & trouvères, in whose music those technical innovations did take place, and upon which (at least that of the former) the Cantigas were modeled — albeit in a rather sternly moralizing vein. What remains unchallenged, though, is the historical interest of such a compilation.2 June 2016
As I've mentioned (probably more than sufficiently), I've had more difficulties learning about new releases of interest over the past few years. Distribution of record labels can suddenly change, and I might not know, thinking I'll be seeing their releases as before. For instance, Cut Circle's first album arrived at my door unsolicited, but their second album, another two-CD set, was released last year (with no US distribution) on the same label, and I didn't hear a word about it until a correspondent recently informed me. In this case, unlike the first album, which focused on little-known Sistine Chapel polyphony c.1490, the program documents some of the monuments of mid-fifteenth century music, the four tenor masses by Dufay. (The notes do not discuss other masses that have been subsequently attributed to Dufay, so these are the "classic" four.) Although one might rightly wonder whether the prominence attached to these mass cycles today is more of a retroactive consideration, given that so much of Dufay's fame was attached to his earlier music, and that other composers were involved in developing the cantus firmus style, the quality of the music continues to assert itself. It would therefore appear that the album was conceived as a major undertaking, documenting these four cycles according to current interpretive techniques. Hence, I will go ahead and make some belated comments. Already, the impact of the release was blunted by the Cantica Symphonia recording, which in all likelihood crossed in production, i.e. was not known to these performers. That album contains an amazing & forceful interpretation of the two earlier masses, emphasizing some of the older (quasi-)isorhythmic relations that that ensemble had already explored so extensively in their earlier Dufay recordings. Cut Circle's approach seems comparatively modern: The landmark Dufay of the 1420s is left far behind, for a choral style evocative of the 1490s or even later. The doubled, mixed choir involves a bit of what I call "choralisms," those sorts of figures & approaches that seem to accompany modern productions with a conductor, etc. — despite emphasizing standing "shoulder to shoulder," Cut Circle also has a conductor standing in front. Whereas previous generations of interpreters took liberties with things like tempo relations & proportions, here they are well-observed, even to the point of a pulse that is perhaps too regular. They likewise don't shy away from ficta or dissonance, avoiding what can come off as a sanitized feel to this music (at least in some earlier interpretations). There is thus plenty to like about the performance. Although the notes discuss various details of the music, they make few specific arguments regarding performance choices (an exception being the decision to sing the cantus firmus texts in the Missa Ecce ancilla Domini), seemingly taking them as a given, and the result is then rather more "vertical" or chordal (i.e. more modern) than I might ideally favor. Whereas Cantica Symphonia's recording blunts the impact of the first half of this set, the later two masses have not been recorded so recently: My favored Ensemble Gilles Binchois recordings of the Missa Ecce ancilla Domini & Missa Ave Regina cælorum are rather dated at this point, particularly the latter. Cut Circle's new interpretation improves upon it in some tangible ways, but doesn't have the suppleness of line that I enjoy so much in those older recordings (particularly in the former, building as it did on a close interrogation of plainchant). Perhaps the Missa Ave Regina cælorum will soon receive yet more attention — as Dufay's final mass cycle, and given his huge discography, I guess I'm a little surprised that it hasn't received more.
I also went ahead and added the new album featuring La Rue's Missa Pourquoy non, as discussed here last month, to my personal list. Although the recording is rather distant & takes a bit to "get into," the mass itself is quite a tour-de-force, an apparently youthful essay in full virtuosity. Indeed, La Rue's music often revels in virtuosity, as illustrated by such albums as Extreme Singing, and we might only just be glimpsing the sort of ensemble polyphony of which some of these chapel singers were capable. One might reframe the comments about Dufay above according to individual singing virtuosity versus ensemble coordination: What I've called "choralism" emphasizes the latter, i.e. emphasizes keeping things under control. One can certainly take the criticism above as relative to the other interpretations available: For some music, simply rendering a credible interpretation onto record is a welcome achievement; for other music, it requires more to impress. (One might even characterize Cut Circle's efforts, perhaps unfairly, as rendering Franco-Flemish polyphony into a generic aural form, the value of which can be perceived immediately as dependent on other possibilities & non-possibilities for hearing the music.) In any case, hopefully La Rue's discography will continue to develop. This is amazing music.17 May 2016
After their series of recordings oriented on an itinerant thirteenth century organ builder, recorded in a short span of time but released over a few years, Graindelavoix has produced a new album, this time featuring one of the most prominent individual pieces in the medieval repertory, the Machaut mass. Whereas I very much appreciated the approach they took in that previous series of albums, I found the material itself somewhat prosaic — which, of course, was part of the point, i.e. to illustrate "everyday" music. Here a charge of obscurity or ordinariness certainly cannot be leveled against their material. On the other hand, it's a rather unusual performance, and the notes themselves spend most of their energy arguing over well-worn thoughts on the impossibility of reproducing a medieval performance per se, as well as that such impossibility can & should be taken as an opening for other approaches, and indeed that given Machaut's intent of "commemoration," a perceived "strangeness" to the performance is a way of enacting that commemoration via authentic distance. (The notion of affect is explicitly raised as a consideration often lacking in contemporary historical musical scholarship, yielding readily to historicism. The point on authenticity, then, is that it's the distance itself that is authentic.) I don't have a problem with this argument, and really don't think it needs to be made, but I do understand that some people have extremely narrow views on what is acceptable in medieval performance. Anyway, my complaint, such as it is, is that the actual technical aspects of the performance are barely mentioned, and I'd have been more interested in Schmelzer's thoughts on that. He does mention the Pérès performance as an inspiration, and it has a somewhat similar sound. (The next most similar is probably Clemencic's recording, which did have a run on my "favorites" list, in particular for its rethinking of the declamatory style of the Gloria & Credo.) Whereas Pérès looks to Eastern techniques of ornamentation, Schmelzer mentions "southern European" confraternities that continue to sing in this style. In that sense, he is engaging a contemporary & ongoing flow of commemoration, although perhaps paradoxically by collapsing the distance between the fourteenth century & contemporary (albeit "traditional") style. For Schmelzer, this is about hybridity & fabulation, two other important contemporary theoretical concepts, but there are various sorts of potential hybridities, and fabulation is of course open-ended by nature. (So, in other words, there can be nothing "canonical" about this style, but per the notes, there needn't be.) An immediately obvious aspect of the interpretation is the degree to which the voices sustain tones: I have been getting comfortable with the idea that Ars Antiqua music did not involve as much explicit "sustain" as previous generations of modern performers have used, instead letting cathedral resonances themselves preserve the echo of tones which could in turn be articulated more subtly by the singers. So whereas the tracks I most enjoy are what seem to be almost Ars Antique style approaches to the two Machaut motets — and continuity with that style does seem to emerge rather clearly in the interpretation, with the proportions serving to hold together the parts as they emerge more quickly (relative to the older music), yet retaining a discursive style (vs. yielding to architectonics) — that enjoyment is because and/or despite their rather alien feel. (Such continuity is underlined by the inclusion of one of Perotin's most famous pieces, dutifully accompanied by sustained harmonic tones.) Within this style of explicitly sustaining & emphasizing resonance, maybe even forcing it, vocal ornaments come to emphasize harmonic relations that serve to further articulate the music. I.e. ornamentation starts to feel structural. (It almost sounds like a traditional Bulgarian choir at times, and I also wonder why Schmelzer is using 10 singers for this 4-part music, but he never mentions that. Perhaps all the sustaining is the obvious answer.) Over in my jazz thoughts, I've recently been discussing interrogations of presence, and this album can be approached in just such a way: It has an almost overbearing presence, paralleled by the almost combative liner notes (both figuring "disruption" as respect), that does yet serve to highlight the distance between us & Machaut. So it's rather successful on its own terms, and interesting to hear. I guess my only real disappointment is that I know the Machaut Mass so well that I hear "it" clearly regardless. Listening itself is diagrammatic in that manner, too, and engages with memory to form personal narrative (as I put it elsewhere). The album thus emphasizes the impossibility of hearing the music entirely the same as others do, let alone historically, as well as of hearing it entirely anew. (Well, maybe someone will truly be hearing this music for the first time, but that's not an experience I can access.)9 May 2016
I was a bit surprised to see another album devoted to Lescurel, considering that so many other prominent trouvères haven't received dedicated recordings at all, and considering that there was the recent Ensemble Syntagma release based on facsimile, and including a performance of an extensive "dit" together with some of his classic songs, as well as the classic Ensemble Gilles Binchois recording. However, whereas the new performance by Ensemble Céladon doesn't mark a real break with previous practice, and indeed one might need to look actively for ways in which their approach differs from e.g. EGB, both the level of mastery in the interpretation & the completeness of the program make for an outstanding album overall, and so it was added to my personal list. (They did prepare new transcriptions of the original notation, this time into notation without bar lines, so it's not as though they are slavishly following previous approaches.) Regarding the notion of a complete program, Ensemble Syntagma's efforts on the dit are toward a literary work with no surviving musical notation. Ensemble Céladon's complete performance comes from a particular manuscript in which the series of 31 songs appears with notation & is attributed to Lescurel — a manuscript that also features the famous Roman de Fauvel & material by De Vitry, etc. I hadn't really noticed this previously, but one striking thing about this series of songs is that they're very nearly in alphabetical order, and stop with G. (I immediately wondered if stopping with G might have something to do with the musical notes, but beyond the very uneven distribution of starting letters, including none with E, the songs themselves don't suggest such a technical orientation.) So one might conclude that the manuscript illustrates a partial output — or, I guess, that Lescurel (who died young, so perhaps left the project unfinished) was rather idiosyncratic in this regard. The complete program was also facilitated by "letting" the songs remain short, instead of padding them with interludes & repeats. Indeed, Paulin Bündgen remarks that this is one of their charms (that Lescurel "gets to the point") & expresses a real passion for Lescurel's music in the notes, a passion that shows through in the richly detailed interpretation: A wide variety of subtle accompaniment is used, as well as different voices in the ensemble to illustrate different points of view (male, female, neither in particular) in the songs. Lescurel's single surviving polyphonic song, which appears elsewhere in both 3-voice & monophonic versions, is also used as a basic model for polyphonic accompaniment elsewhere. The notes also raise the question of whether these are more "middle class" songs versus the aristocratic orientation of the troubadours (which in turn interrogates concepts of virtuosity in performance, at least obliquely). I think that one can easily overstate such an observation, but there's no question but that Paris of the era, especially with its university, fostered some different social relations. Lescurel is sometimes portrayed historically as a criminal, but there's no question that he had quite a sophisticated sense for melody.8 May 2016
The album itself is by a student ensemble, and mostly features contemporary choral music (although only a slight majority by duration), but I did want to mention William Kempster's argument for accepting the title Missa Pourquoy non for the La Rue mass that Honey Meconi calls Missa Almana and lists first in her hypothetical chronology. Kempster's upcoming article in The Choral Scholar makes a good case for the "pourquoy non" assignment, and potentially raises interest in the mass. (Kempster also characterizes the masses as the "core" of La Rue's output, and I feel a need to register some disagreement there: That would be the chansons, despite that they don't possess a scholarly edition. That several masses derive from chansons, not the other way around, illustrates this point.) Anyway, it's nice to hear these investigations continuing, and I've modified the discography accordingly.8 April 2016
John Potter & Christopher O'Gorman, increasingly joined by Rogers Covey-Crump, released the first volume of their conductus project back in 2012. Even when the second volume was released in 2013, I demurred on taking a real stance on the project, stating that I would wait for the third volume. Before talking about the music & its interpretation, I want to make a few remarks about such a sequence itself: Particularly with what I perceived to be a delay with the third volume (which was recorded in 2014, so after the first two were released), I started questioning my own relative lack of support. Would the planned third volume even be completed? I wouldn't say that I didn't support the project per se, but rather that I guess I remained skeptical in my public statements, even as I certainly remained interested. I need to find a better way to articulate such a stance here, so maybe this discussion will help. (The "favorites" approach to organizing musical discussion here has worked against such a perspective, just by itself.) Perhaps as something of an excuse for myself — and waiting for the project to complete let me defer making judgments, so it was at least partly a matter of laziness — I want to note that the documentation did explicitly state that there would be three volumes, such that suspending judgment in anticipation of the third volume was almost solicited.
In any case, anticipation of an announced third volume had also led to anticipation of some sort of consummation for the project. If there's a consummation, however, it's not obvious, and there's no mention in the documentation of this actually being the end either. One change is that Volume 3 doesn't feature Marian material, but most of the difference is rather simply a matter of continuing to develop an interpretive style, particularly in regard to rhythmic articulation of these often complex melodies. The trio continues to develop their command, to the point that Volume 3 does indeed set new standards for articulating both metrical & free passages, including in their alternation in some cases. The singing remains highly detailed, and continues Potter's exploration of a similar basic style with Red Byrd: Amazingly, even Volume 1 of the conductus project was recorded a full ten years after their second volume of Leonin organum. (Time sure flies sometimes, at least from my perspective. I still think of those explorations as fairly new, so obviously I need to update myself.) As these comments already suggest, the trio is both setting new standards for interpretation of this material, and in turn exploring that material more deeply than it had been in the past: Although there have been many albums to feature the conductus, the size of the present project is simply unprecedented.
So, setting new standards for this material, both in interpretation & repertory exploration? Just how compelling is the material then? That's the real question, and I've wanted to take my own time with it. First of all, there are hundreds of these conductus pieces, mostly monophonic, but ranging up to four parts, that survive. They are not as voluminous as plainchant, however, and plainchant suggests one ready point of reference, what with its own (sometimes elaborate) system of melody, or rather systems & styles (plural). In that sense, the conductus was rather more specialized, as it seems to have been oriented on Paris & a small number of prominent institutions, perhaps emphasizing an academic connection. Moreover, the Latin text of the conductus (although Potter et al.'s third volume includes some vernacular) has facilitated lumping it into a broad category of paraliturgical music, and such an assessment is often supported by the religious themed texts. However, in a society permeated by Christianity, including theological ideas in one's elaborate lyric poetry hardly comes as a surprise. In any case, debates over what the conductus was actually "for" continue. Beyond plainchant & the paraliturgical outputs more broadly, the conductus, particularly in the wide stylistic range illustrated in these three volumes, accommodates pretty much the full scope of the melodic exploration of the period. In other words, one can as well hear echoes of secular melodies, such that the larger surviving conductus repertory provides something of a context for e.g. troubadour songs, etc. (Rather it can possibly provide such a context, but considering that it is much less known, that context has yet to be developed.) One might also consider the various other lyrical traditions of the period, around Robin, Tristan, etc. It appears that the relative sophistication of the conductus repertory, and the corresponding difficulties of interpretation, actually served to push it into more obscurity.
This is indeed very sophisticated music from a melodic-rhythmic standpoint. (The sorts of counterpoint employed have already been fairly well explored, and are reflected by the more famous organum repertory, etc. Note the direction I've posited there. Of course, such counterpoint does offer different features with different sorts of melodies, at least to some extent.) It seems natural to compare it with Eastern chant, and particularly with Arabic lyric forms. Whereas the starkness of the interpretations on these albums is one of their strengths, because it highlights such melodic-rhythmic exploration, I can easily imagine an orchestra of traditional instruments providing punctuation in the classic North African or Syrian styles. Indeed, I think I'm finally convinced that this is among the most significant surviving repertory of its time & place, and will reward far more exploration & development. Perhaps more in the way of "pure enjoyment" will develop as well, since as noted, these albums do come off starkly. The repertory has had life breathed into it now, and for the first time on this scale, but will require more attention to really become vibrant. In that sense, these albums once again problematize the "favorites" concept I typically employ here, but have been added to my personal list nonetheless.20 March 2016
When I've suggested more recordings of fifteenth century chansons, I wasn't necessarily thinking of Arnold & Hugo de Lantins, but the new album from Baptiste Romain is quite welcome nonetheless. The de Lantins, who are generally assumed to be brothers, although the precise relation remains unknown, employ a melodic, yet thirds-infused style that is clearly aligned with Binchois & the early Dufay. Moreover, their journey from Liege to Italy mirrors that of Ciconia, and some of their songs come off analogously, although reflecting the fast-paced musical changes of the 1420s. (Listening to this album specifically as a followup to some Ciconia songs is recommended.) Lyrical counterpoint by the de Lantins had previously appeared most extensively on record in a sacred cycle analogous to Dufay's hymns, i.e. harmonized chant in the top line, etc. In the secular works, however, the keen lyrical sense remains, but the pieces engage more with historical forms & contrapuntal complexity. The result makes for an enjoyable album, one buoyed by a credible interpretation from Le Miroir de Musique, an ensemble that seems to have been formed originally to investigate instrument technology of the period: I don't necessarily appreciate the heavy instrumental doubling at times, particularly in the opening track (which sets the mood), although their inspiration seems to have been Italian practice of the period, and indeed much of this music would apparently have been written in Italy, even as it exemplifies Burgundian style. Despite a bit of a heavy hand at times, in that sense, the performance comes off rather nicely overall, definitely giving one a strong sense of the music. It was thus added to my personal list.
Another factor to discuss regarding this album is that one of the tracks includes a misogynist acrostic. David Fallows points this out in the liner notes, or the listener would likely never notice — likely not even if reading the lyrics. I don't say this by way of excuse, but do want to note that this issue was explicitly raised by the production itself. I do tend to downplay such issues here, and try to take music on the terms under which it was written: Many times & places have featured mainstream, or non-mainstream, ideas with which many of us here & now would disagree, and personally, I'm not even Christian, so medieval music in general presents something of a disconnect in this sense. However, it's a lot easier to enjoy, or even identify with, the more positive sentiments. One thing I'll suggest that the acrostic does is raise some of the tension of the courtly poetic forms more explicitly. What did people writing these conventional lyrics of love & devotion really think of women? There is plenty of tension already from the troubadour lyrics, etc., but by the 1420s, this poetry was highly stylized. It's hard not to read some of it as sarcastic anyway, even when it keeps to form. In that sense, what with all the lyrics about lost love & such, it's difficult to imagine that anger wasn't in play. (Adding to the tension, this is also the era of Christine de Pizan, as discussed in the previous entry.) As I said, I don't want to offer excuses, but I guess I do feel a need to excuse my own enjoyment of this album. Lengthy explorations of world & historical traditions have yielded, perhaps, a personal inclination to "suspend disbelief" (so to speak) on this point, but it's certainly worth noting what we're really hearing. (And lest we feel too superior, let's remember the many flaws of our contemporary society & its own cultural production.)18 March 2016
I'm not normally a fan of medieval music anthologies, you know the sorts of albums that span a dozen styles over centuries of music, and indeed, I have to say that that's still my main musical reaction to VocaMe's Christine de Pizan album. In this case, there's no surviving music for most of Christine's poems & dances, and so the ensemble had no choice but to use other music. I definitely agree that this was a worthwhile idea, and so want to note the album: Christine de Pizan figures prominently, for instance, and together with Hildegard von Bingen, in Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, and she's been considered a major historical figure off & on since her lifetime. Her writing uses the typical formes fixes of the period, and so finding suitable music generally seems to be feasible, although the ensemble did note that finding just the right combination took considerable effort. They also note how it seemed appropriate to them to use music from literally more than a century before Christine's birth, which I regard as a very dubious choice that works against letting the listener into her sound world. Also, although it's easy to pick out some well-known tunes (such as Ventadorn's Quan vei la lauzeta, multiple Machaut songs, etc.), none of the music, other than the well-known Binchois track, is actually credited. Perhaps they thought that identifying the composers (or sources) would draw attention away from Christine, but this is something else that compromises the value of the album for the general listener: How are they going to seek more of favorite musical tracks? However, the album is nicely packaged, and includes quality translations (albeit with some typos) of all the lyrics, so one can get to know Christine's texts, despite the musical issues raised.23 February 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>