This page concerns the "Early Music" portion of the site. (Although I do not remember specifically myself, if I trust what I see online, it appears that this feature began in April 2000, then in a monthly digest format.)
As of October 2014, I will be making comments here on an intermittent, not on a strictly monthly basis. Accordingly, entries will be dated more precisely than by their month.
As always, comments here are what I choose to note about a release, and do not follow a strict format. Only recordings about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say will be mentioned in this space.
Comments are in reverse chronological order, i.e. newest first.Todd M. McComb
The remarks made while adding the new Ensemble Gilles Binchois album to my personal list already express much of what I'd otherwise say here, but I do want to note a few things (more) concretely: For one, it took months for this album to make its way to me. I'm not loving the direction of music retail lately, that's for sure.... (I suppose that, among the world's various wars — of the "trade" variety & otherwise — & intensifying persecutions, the ability to receive recordings promptly from European media companies is among the least important issues, but it's still what makes this particular project possible....) It's also worth noting that, to this point, Vellard had recorded very little from the Ars Nova: He'd recorded a wide variety of earlier material, both of the polyphonic & (various) monophonic sorts, and then again with the generation of Dufay & Binchois, and further into a rather idiosyncratic selection of often much later music, but little from the Ars Nova beyond Machaut specifically. (Of course, his series of Machaut recordings — now decades old — continue to be represented on my favorites list, so I've actually enjoyed his work with the Ars Nova going back to the 1980s....) That seems curious now that I've really noticed, but this latest recording (devoted to Barcelona & Apt masses) also seems to follow the inspiration & logic of the previous album of Ars Antiqua selections closely, making for a parallel Ars Nova anthology: Given its wonderful interpretive command — superbly flexible, yet emphatic phrasing from both voices & instruments (when used) — such a parallel opportunity seems particularly worthwhile. And the individual pieces aren't necessarily selected for their technical brilliance, but do illustrate & articulate an era of sacred music rather well, and indeed serve to provide much continuity with Vellard's various plainchant explorations, not only from the earlier era, but extending to many out-of-the-way survivals from modern times. This program & interpretation are thus both incredibly detailed & part of a "long view." E.g. the exotic intervals for which Apt et al. are known come to sound quite right in this context....6 October 2019
I feel as though I should make some brief remarks regarding the recent O Rosa Bella program recorded in Italy by a couple of previously unknown ensembles (but including a few familiar names): Gilles Joye hadn't registered with me, but his work dates to decades that are central to my interests, and the monothematic program is generally enjoyable (including e.g. one of the strangest Ockeghem attributions in that composer's catalog). The performances employ large ensembles with doubling, as was common in Italy in the period (& as I've enjoyed e.g. for Dufay's more festive music), and are generally animated & forceful. As far as the Mass itself, it's a strange three-part piece, with the Kyrie as its longest movement, and e.g. the Credo in a simple cantilena style.... The comments in the notes seem ambiguous to me, so I'm not sure if they're suggesting that Joye wrote only this "O Rosa Bella" cycle or all three in the Trent Codices. Clemencic had recorded the four-part setting, a more solid piece.... (And some other items have been quite slow to make their way to me....)5 September 2019
To conclude a short series of discussions of a small flurry of recent releases, a recent duo recording of Josquin songs moves not only to somewhat later music (i.e. later fifteenth century and into the early sixteenth), but evokes another doubly retrospective view by engaging both later sixteenth century practice as well as the 1980s discography — in an eerie parallel to the new motet disc discussed here late last year: Perhaps it's too easy for me to link this sort of shift in perspective specifically to simultaneous shifts in what one is presented by search engines (no doubt in part around international politics & its "fake news" notions), but this sort of production does seem to be another bow toward more conservative (i.e. classical) audiences & their modern (in the broad historical sense) orientation. Before I get too embroiled in that topic, though, I do want to note that arranging Josquin's secular music for a single voice & single lute (or, in some cases, lute solo) is a perfectly sensible thing to do: It wasn't the orientation of Josquin's milieu, but it was to become a dominant musical idiom during the sixteenth century, including via many contemporary adaptations of Josquin's work (specifically), and leading into the "new monody" as one fount of the baroque (i.e. the "first global imperial" era). (Prior to the new monody per se, the frottola took a similar approach to highlighting the solo voice via — most often lute — accompaniment, and various instrumentalists were creating tablatures of both polyphonic music & various diminutions, etc....) So in that sense, the recent Adieu mes amours is indeed a sort of historically based production — but based in the period following Josquin: In this, sonorities are carefully considered, and instruments were built with appealing & detailed timbres, including a "bray lute" with buzzing resonators based on earlier harps, which appears (to good effect) on some tracks. The baritone voice is more rounded than I'd often prefer from medieval singers, more in keeping with a baroque aesthetic, i.e. with a more individual self-consciousness that the notes characterize as the "art of singing." In other words, although not in any way strident, the notes take on a similar tone to that on the prior motet disc (which likewise seems more naïve than strident), in that although they note uncertainties regarding Josquin's biography & output (especially in the secular music in the latter case), the sketch doesn't involve recent scholarship, but instead tends simply to repeat what was said decades ago. Moreover, there is a universalizing tendency at work in the notion of "composer" the notes construct, and especially in remarks on "actual art." It's thus another retro view, but also one that seeks both to exclude earlier (i.e. medieval) music from the (modern) category of "art" (& implicitly to elevate painting), and to assimilate Josquin more fully to the modern regime: Curiously, notions of Renaissance aren't actually articulated, but the perspective is similarly one of anticipating later modernity. And in another strange parallel, the album isn't only a later sixteenth century-based approach to Josquin — incorporating e.g. the sorts of ornaments & rhythmic interpolations that he specifically decried in his own era — but adopts the title of another 1980s Harmonia Mundi album that likewise served as an early recommendation here.... (So again, it seems almost like an attempt to make three decades of medieval music scholarship vanish into a new sea of conservatism & reorientation on universalist empire....) And indeed, I've been talking about Josquin secular discs in this space for a while, with a couple of others that I find more valuable... actually also involving later music as well! The "chapel" style album of five- & six-part music takes a rather heavy-handed approach via vocal doubling, and includes some later organ music by other composers (elaborating Josquin's material). And the more broadly instrumentally oriented program likewise includes some later lute music (plus a short c.2000 piece, with concerns different from those of this discussion) — as well as develops plucked string technique in general. (The latter does also include many tracks with a smaller instrumental ensemble, i.e. that don't involve intabulation, that I hear as nicely idiomatic for the period. The larger vocal renditions of Se congie prens likewise seem more overdone than significant stylistic departures in terms of rhythm, ficta, etc. I should probably also mention the recent Kaiser Maximilian I from an ensemble similar to that on Les fantaisies de Josquin, there in a simpler thematic program....) So why this sort of treatment for Josquin? Beyond any desire to assimilate the music to later styles & mentalities, it's also partly a matter of the uncertain contours of Josquin's output, and the many similar secular works distributed under his name, with no clear stylistic end point.... Or so I'll suggest. (Or is it more about the dated editions? That hasn't prevented new approaches here or elsewhere....) Meanwhile, people seem able to perform e.g. La Rue chansons with what seem like ensembles & techniques of the c.1500 period.... Anyway, beyond these broad considerations, I'd say that the result of this new Adieu mes amours production involves some tracks that work well, but that it never sounds much like Josquin. It's simply a more modern approach than his own. (And again, in the very limited sense of the latter statement, there's nothing inherently wrong with that: Inspiration is & can be multifaceted. A different sort of discussion would have been more welcome, though.)16 July 2019
Continuing the early fifteenth century orientation from the previous entry (now, on average, involving music a little earlier), but this time around Burgundian-Italian music, I also want to highlight the recent Johannes de Lymburgia program, Gaude felix Padua, by Le Miroir de Musique. It continues what has often been a basic Burgundian orientation for the group, including around Italian sojourns (& hence performance practice, mainly heard as instrumental doubling in these interpretations): In particular, only Latin music by Lymburgia has survived (& calling it "sacred" isn't quite in keeping with later designations, as it's not all liturgical), and so this program is rather different from the group's earlier album devoted to the de Lantins, which is secular (mostly in French, including some Italian & Latin items — but not the surviving liturgical music). Lymburgia had been illustrated on record only by an occasional short track elsewhere, and so this program reveals another distinctive, personal contrapuntal style (chronologically) between those of Ciconia & Dufay. (Besides the de Lantins, one might also compare e.g. to Brassart, who was apparently a somewhat younger contemporary: Perhaps he'll be subject of this group's next album? He & Lymburgia sometimes seem to collide in Buxheimer Orgelbuch style, if via the Codex Faenza in these interpretations....) The program also ranges from mass movements to laude-derived strophic songs, orienting on the composer's time in Italy. The quirky style in evidence here might not have had much subsequent influence, particularly with Dufay becoming such a dominating figure (not to mention the English input in the wake of the Hundred Years War), but it does help to elaborate (once again) the musical concerns of the era. The group's handling of the different genres is also quite deft, involving a sense of lightness when appropriate, and fine articulation in general. The pieces aren't all of the most striking individual merit (with the Magnificat being perhaps the most individually distinctive), but the result does end up being both enjoyable & broadly illuminating e.g. of Dufay's context.15 July 2019
Particularly since I used the previous volume largely to introduce a broader stylistic discussion of English-Continental oppositions (around the Ashwell disc from Graindelavoix), I want to give the third volume in the recent early fifteenth century English music series from the Binchois Consort, Music for Saint Katherine, its own entry: This is, once again, music from an intriguing era of musical change, performed according to up-to-date practice & by an ensemble with extensive experience in related repertory. (And I was delayed in making these remarks due to more changes in the music retail business....) It also continues a pairing of alabaster sculpture with music, now with a "sculptor in residence" involved: It's a curious choice for a multimedia program in 2019, i.e. photos accompanying a CD, but hey, why not? Music-wise, as noted in the brief previous mention here, continuing performances of Frye & Dunstaple highlight the major repertory involved, but these sorts of thematic programs also allow the inclusion of various stylistic oddball pieces from the era, which does help to illuminate the basic musical questions being considered at the time, i.e. beyond the larger outputs that came to involve more influence on subsequent generations. (My comment or question regarding the performances themselves actually involves sustain: I'm starting to get the impression that the voices are too active, and should be letting the resonances "hang in the air" a bit more, i.e. without forcing the vocal cords.) The Frye mass cycle here, also on the St. Katherine theme, hadn't been recorded previously, as far as I know, but they chose not to highlight that aspect: There have been a few single album productions devoted to Frye over the years, but no one has taken the plunge to record his entire output (which would fit on two CDs, if my calculations are correct), which I find kind of curious at this point. (Ciconia sports two complete 3CD editions, for instance.) Perhaps Frye's larger forms haven't been compelling enough for that, versus his popular shorter works, but one might compare his masses e.g. to those of Faugues in terms of basically elaborating song forms into longer movements.... More significantly, though (given his reputation), Dunstaple has even fewer dedicated programs from the CD era, and there's been little in the way of a systematic view of his output so far. Isn't it about time for a Complete Dunstaple? And how about a related program focusing on the late English isorhythmic motet per se? (But then, I guess I usually return to technical, rather than thematic, questions....)14 July 2019
Let me also take a moment to discuss a couple of other recent releases devoted to key 14th & 15th century repertory, even as my thoughts will be briefer & perhaps more ambivalent....
The new Orlando Consort album, titled simply Dufay, includes some of the more unusual secular unica in the great composer's output, but also comes off as a rather conservative production: In particular, although it moves decisively — as is the norm with this ensemble — to all-vocal renditions (& with one voice to a part), the group continues to use the Besseler-Fallows edition (1964/1995) of the songs, and even involves Fallows to provide the liner notes. These are interesting for some of their associations & discussions of the unique place of some of these songs, but also say little about the approach to performance. (What is considered is e.g. whether to take repeats, how to fill in missing material, etc. I.e., the basic sound & structure is taken for granted, making it a question of which verses....) In particular, the tuning here seems out of place to me from the opening, with strange passings & curious cadences, although it starts to seem a bit more idiomatic by the later part of the program (which is mostly later music). Such an impression is in sharp contrast to e.g. the recent The Dufay Spectacle from Gothic Voices, which might come off as relatively over-showy, and does include some bigger repertory & (sometimes overdone) instrumental doubling, but also provides a quite convincing sense of tuning & structure. Although it's partly due to specific repertory choices (as noted), that program is also more energetic, whereas the new Dufay comes off rather more subdued: In that, it recalls the same ensemble's Compère (where sound engineering is also an issue — seemingly worked out in the course of the group's Machaut Edition...), an album that seems quite valuable for its ongoing exploration of the later composer, but which often comes off as muddled & as a relatively random assortment. (There the similar tuning does seem more appropriate.) Maybe that album just needed more presence from the engineering to hear the lower voices better, but that Dufay takes such a conservative approach to performance style & sources is somewhat surprising. (The Machaut Edition is based on new, forthcoming editions.) And maybe this effort really revolves around an unstated insistence on later 15th century tuning principles, as they develop between Pythagorean & mean-tone.... Anyway, there are appealing moments — right from the beginning — and Dufay is always great, but I was disappointed by this project.
In contrast to the Orlando Consort, La Reverdie is a group that hadn't been very active lately (& indeed I'd mainly thought of their recent releases as reissues), but now takes up some core repertory in L'Occhio del Cor — devoted to Landini: The program takes an autobiographical approach around blindness, selecting songs that refer to sight — including in various metaphorical guises, to yield a distinctive sense of period perceptual hierarchy (in my terms from elsewhere). This involves six first recordings of Landini songs, for instance, making the program of particular note from a discographic perspective. And the liner notes are similarly detailed in the sense of discussing individual song content, but very little on performance style. (In fact, that section of the notes focuses on spelling, which was a surprising orientation for me — not that it doesn't provide guidance on articulation & phrasing, but a desire to come back to a focus on actual spelling seemed novel....) In this case, I tend to associate La Reverdie with the relatively simpler laud repertory of the period, although they've done more "academic" programs too (but not previously devoted to Landini, which kind of surprised me...), and the phrasing & articulation often tend to emphasize short phrases & to seek regular, even danceable rhythms. In contrast, Christophe Deslignes is incredibly fluid on organetto, and perhaps it was the possibility of this pairing that inspired their "return" to this repertory.... I enjoyed both Deslignes' phrasing & basic sound (very like a wind instrument) very much, and perhaps he makes the rest of the ensemble (which employs quite a bit of doubling as well) seem lacking in agility in comparison.... Although the new look at Landini is still welcome, I didn't get much musical insight on his work as a result. (E.g. the raw, emergent power of a Micrologus seems to be missing.) Somehow a lightness of individual tone combines into what seems like a heavy handed ensemble sound, with linear tension almost becoming an afterthought (other than in contrast with the organetto).29 May 2019
With their Obrecht Masses, Beauty Farm turn to two cycles that had already received worthwhile interpretations on disc — as opposed to much of their work, which has been devoted to relatively unknown music (or to new stylistic presentations of music that had been performed by prior generations). In this, they turn in an absolute tour-de-force performance of this music leading into 1500, likely the most forceful & richly detailed on record to this point. (One might add, crucially, that the sense of detailed variety doesn't interfere with the coherent sweep of the mass settings, which is a possible issue.) In this, the choice of Obrecht is also striking, in that his settings are especially transparent & sonically rich to the ear: This is exuberant & ecstatic music, then, in a sense that might be compared to Ockeghem, but within a more thoroughly structured form. Obrecht's music also tends to be relatively similar to itself, at least within broad bands, and so the individual relevance of the particular cycles is worth noting as well: The Missa Fortuna desperata is especially illustrative & even canonical in this regard, and so Beauty Farm's interpretation follows an enjoyable — but not particularly assertive or dangerous — reading by the Sound and the Fury, as paired with the technically similar Missa Rose playsante (another fine cycle to be sure). One might moreover compare Obrecht's setting to that by Josquin, who would appear to have been inspired by it, and particularly in the Tallis Scholars performance, which is both relatively more muffled interpretively & more subtle textually. (Although that interpretation seems relatively recent within this context, I should remind myself that it's actually from 2009, i.e. ten years ago. The Sound and the Fury performance was similarly over ten years earlier than Beauty Farm.... Time marches on.) The Tallis Scholars are also the reference for the previous Missa Maria zart, which as opposed to a mere decade of elapsed time, was my Record of the Year way back in 1996! (It always seemed like a strange issue within their catalog to me, but was also the first Obrecht album of the CD era, as well as a virtuoso piece known for its elaboration of extended sequences....) The structural consistency that Beauty Farm achieve alongside the pure vocal virtuosity of the extended sequences is, once again, at another level of mastery — & indeed their double CD was promptly added to my personal list. (Listening to this double album also proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this music can be extremely powerful & well-articulated with only four singers!) The entire production combines excitement with gravity into an inexorable momentum that seems to define Obrecht's music.... That said, if Beauty Farm is going to start re-recording mass cycles, why not tackle Josquin? Neither they nor the Sound and the Fury have done so. Is there too much historical weight, a sense of the "war horse" as the figure goes? I think it's time: Let's hear, say, the two L'homme armé masses....24 May 2019
Although I haven't generally featured contemporary arrangements here, I do want to make a few remarks about Ars Nova - New Music, which features music by Machaut & De Vitry adapted for a modern string duo (of violin & double bass). In particular, the emphasis is on illustrating the importance of Pythagorean tuning to Ars Nova music — & the program thus includes a (9+') contemporary musical study on the divisions of the major third (as differing by the Pythagorean comma) as well. The Ars Nova selections are generally performed without repeats (although the most elaboration is reserved for Machaut's monophonic lai, Amours doucement me tente in its first recorded performance...), such that an "essential" quality is conveyed — particularly by the sequence of twenty different songs by Machaut. These are wonderfully crisp, & generally briefly evocative interpretations.... The Machaut selections don't visit his most contrapuntally involved music, though, which might give an impression of the limits of the project or approach, but then the program turns to the academic motet in all its glory (albeit at an earlier stage than much of Machaut's music), in the De Vitry motets from Le Roman de Fauvel. The technical precision in each case is superlative, such that the performance provides an exceptionally clear illustration of Machaut's melodic & contrapuntal sense, and then serves substantially to clarify & amplify the detailed interactions in the motets as well. (Note that the adaptations thus go beyond two-voice settings.) Although the performance itself is thus outstanding — & could serve as a worthwhile introduction to Ars Nova music in general — the historical comments included are more often dubious: I'd be inclined to look past them, given the fine performance, but they read specifically like something out of a music textbook from a couple of generations ago. When are these notions ever, finally updated? (Again, I think this is an emerging commentary on the increasing inability to find anything but mainstream commercial information online these days — at least absent much more effort than was required not so very long ago....) Also, there's an implication that these performers have somehow initiated Pythagorean tuning for this music, which likewise dates back nearly 40 years.... So although I strongly agree with the performers that Pythagorean tuning is essential to making much (sense) of the music, I simply find it strange that they seem to be operating so blindly with regard to decades of research on these points. (How is this even possible?) I guess I do have to give them a pass on that, though, since the actual sonic result is so polished & illuminating.25 February 2019
Finally (for this little burst of entries), to step back into a more technical orientation, particularly after enjoying their La Rue disc (& the Missa Inviolata — another setting on the Virgin — in particular), I want to turn to The Brabant Ensemble's new Févin program: This is another very long album from them, packing in a lot of material (& unfortunately using far too many track markers, as the Tallis Scholars also did on their new Josquin album), and supported by a quality technical discussion from Rice. Regarding the prior rant, I do often find Rice's group to be too "pretty" & distant, but he does take a thoughtful (& not modernist) approach to tuning & ficta, and so brings out a wealth of detail in phrasing, etc. So that's good (& I believe that he, along with Hyperion in general, reacts to the public preferences I mention below by simply recording more quietly & with less presence, which isn't ideal either...). So that said, Rice makes a good case for hearing more from Févin, and this is an important program to extend his large-scale discography beyond the Requiem. Févin actually died before both La Rue & Josquin, although he was apparently younger & writing in a somewhat newer style: Indeed, the sometimes light tone (& homophonic or alternating passages) suggest a later orientation (i.e. anticipate modern smugness), but there are significant technical challenges as well, particularly in working Josquin's famous Ave Maria into a mass cycle. The latter is an example of early parody technique, and seems to place the structural aspects almost secondarily: There's a sort of "prettiness" to the music, almost to the point that one might talk of "decorating" a structure, and that's what Févin emphasizes. And it's quite decorated — although in a very different mode from the swirling weirdness of the contemporaneous Missa Ave Maria by Thomas Ashwell (as discussed via swirling weirdness here in September, and as largely absent such a structural skeleton). This is the sort of style that leads into word painting, etc., and a comparison goes some way toward answering Schmelzer's call for a consideration of the distinctive quality of English (musical) aesthetics at this particular (almost early modern) moment. (There's also the little swap, an English group doing Continental music & vice versa.)
Whereas Ashwell might be said to remove the skeleton from under the decorations — or liberate them, as Schmelzer suggests — their contemporary (who did outlive La Rue & Josquin) Bauldeweyn presents more structural innovation: The Beauty Farm double album was revelatory in this regard, but now Peter Urquhart has indeed returned with a contribution of his own, in this case an album around the Missa Du bon du cueur with some related songs by other composers. Here I actually prefer the song performances, including for their consort arrangements around low instruments (including sackbuts). The result is distinctive & earthy (& reminds me of later diminution technique, e.g. as articulated by Ortiz), but the large ensemble used on the mass tracks (& these may date to different recording sessions), together with so-so recording equipment, lends a rather muddy result there too. Still, the solid structural clarity & sweep of Bauldeweyn's ideas do come through, almost like a powerful musical scaffolding. This is the sort of music that was soon to disappear, and these are workmanlike performances worth hearing.1 January 2019
A couple of recent Josquin albums give me an opportunity — or perhaps a command — to write a little more about public impressions of this music — which, as regular readers will know, I approach as late medieval. The latter is significant with a composer like Josquin in particular, i.e. one whose works are often hailed as anticipating Renaissance modernity (or in my terms, imperial-colonial modernity). In particular, even as performance practice evolves for earlier music, and indeed for the music of the Josquin era (as in e.g. the immediately prior La Rue discussion), there's still an urge to perform Josquin in a later 16th century style, or even to prioritize vocal aesthetics that originated with Restoration England. That the latter style is ahistorical when applied to Franco-Flemish polyphony of c.1500 is not only incredibly obvious, but has been discussed — including publicly — in great detail in the past couple of decades. Musicians know it, of course: The most recent Josquin program by The Tallis Scholars is a good example of improving command in this repertory, including of tuning, ficta, rhythm, etc. (All have been mangled, and were as a norm not so long ago, including by the Scholars themselves.) Their Missa Gaudeamus in particular is probably their most accomplished yet, for instance. (And, once again, there is no documentation provided regarding when the recording was made. For all I know, the entire cycle of cycles was recorded several years ago & is being slowly released over time.) Indeed, it's probably the single most compelling version of one of Josquin's most sophisticated — & best served on record, as opposed to some of the early entries in the Tallis Scholars' renewed series — masses, but also doesn't set new standards. Like their previous Josquin album, that featuring the Missa Di dadi, it's also paired with a lesser work, in this case the Missa L'ami baudichon. (However, whereas the pairing on the prior album was basically a throwaway, the latter has its merits. It's somewhat crude, but projects an appealing solidity... as first revealed by Peter Urquhart, to whom the next entry will partly turn. Once this series concludes, and this is the 7th of 9 albums, if prior comments are to be believed, the way that most have paired greater & lesser cycles will probably end up limiting its appeal somewhat. I suppose that's simply a consequence of whatever version of "complete" is being used here....) The Missa Gaudeamus is not an "odd ball" Josquin cycle, however (as was Di dadi), and so fits comfortably in a general survey of his style: One might invert such an assessment, though, and begin to suggest that unique cycles are far more characteristic of Josquin, and specifically for their lack of general characteristics: They often adopt personal stances, whether due to technical challenges, or some other sort of orientation, that yields a particular musical perspective & sonic (& aesthetic) result, not unlike motets (which achieve such a result in part via differing texts).
And I suppose that my continued refrain regarding motets, and so why so many groups are focusing only on mass cycles, has become tedious: Yet motets have long been regarded as Josquin's most significant output, so their neglect is particularly vexing. And so I was happy to see a new program finally appear: Indeed, even seeing the announcement reminded me of the Herreweghe classic (which was, coincidentally, relatively new when the EM FAQ project began, and so my first Josquin recommendation there), but the result felt more like a journey back in time than merely that: I don't mean it in a positive sense either, but rather as a regression in attitude & approach toward the music, i.e. as a renewed attempt to approach it from a later (largely Baroque, i.e. modern) perspective. Reading the liner notes in particular felt almost like my work had never existed: From trivial complaints such as never mentioning Absalon, fili mi at all (and so its more recent attribution to La Rue), to the pat absurdity of claiming that people wouldn't have been able to hear two melodies at once, they're utterly dismissive of a medieval orientation (& without even mentioning the possibility, almost as if part of a "there is no alternative" Thatcherist cant...). The performance follows suit (or perhaps the notes reflect the performance): The earlier repertory is performed in a wretched manner, with absurd ahistorical tuning & ficta, and indeed muddled phrasing that obscures the middle parts almost completely. This jumbled mess of turgid rhythmic interpolations & cadential "tics" does then start to sound almost appropriate by the time of the more motivic Miserere (as the program proceeds mostly chronologically), i.e. the title track & without cantus firmus.... One can barely pick out the tenor elsewhere, and so of course the various chants are obscured, and moreover, rather than emphasizing intervals around the tenor, tuning is allowed to move around (including there, in the "hold" voice) in order to emphasize a smooth, soprano-dominated texture. I haven't read any other discussion of this interpretation to this point, but I have no doubt that it'll be hailed by Baroque-oriented listeners (& people who just love Western imperialism, whatever else they might claim) who — pace e.g. the complaints regarding tuning by Ars Antiqua, which is at least according to a well intended approach, if not fine execution — want their music to sound "angelic" & placidly unchallenging, while anything premodern should indeed seem obscure & pointless. The result is a triumph in this sense! Do I know anything about who Daniel Reuss is? No, other than that he has recorded later music to this point, and that this is supposed to be the start of his series on the Renaissance.... The whole thing comes off as an unrepentant glorification of imperial modernity to me, and so quite far from clashing sorrows.... I mean, to be fair, there are some nice moments where some of the distinctive sweep of the famous motets reveals itself, but in obscuring most of the musical detail, that also comes off as imperious in & of itself. I try not to get too much into negative rants here, but "disappointing" doesn't begin to describe the resulting impact. (And yes, it also makes for something of a meditation on the passing of internet — & so general — relevance for non-commercial sites such as this. None of this should surprise me, yet hearing it really did offend me in a pretty basic way. Boo!) To return to the "back in time" observation, then, this album doesn't prompt me to look back to c.1500, but rather back to c.1980 — or perhaps (itself in distorted form) to c.1600. The latter seems to have been the intent.30 December 2018
Perhaps there are more items that'll be appearing, particularly if they were recorded only this year, but the 500th anniversary of La Rue's death has at least brought a relatively small but high quality set of releases, in particular the Beauty Farm double album from early in the year, half the fine Requiem disc from Diabolus in Musica, and now another double album of masses from The Sound and the Fury. (It still appears as though the latter has stopped meeting as an ensemble, as the recording itself actually dates from 2013, i.e. to shortly after the Pipelare double album that had been their climactic issue.) Whereas Beauty Farm's program consisted entirely of four-part cycles, however, The Sound and the Fury devote a (small) majority of the program to five-part settings — all based on monophonic material, though. In particular, whereas the second disc reprises the virtuosic program (of thirty years ago now) by Ensemble Clément Janequin, the first is perhaps more successful, providing striking & polished second (in both cases, as it happens) interpretations of both the Missa Paschale & Ista est speciosa (both in five voices, sung here one to a part): The Easter Mass is actually a later piece than the Christmas cycle included in the recent Beauty Farm set, and that much more restrained technically. (The notes suggest that it might be too severe to be successful, but I've found it to be quite successful since first hearing it by Ars Antiqua of Paris — in an interpretation that continues to draw a surprising amount of bile from the general public, but more on that in the next entry.) The Virgin Mass — one of a significant handful by La Rue — presents an even more exuberant, even sparkling setting, and is a real high point itself. In contrast, the second disc seems a little less accomplished interpretation-wise, but does reprise the Missa L'homme armé after a rather long interval, and moreover attempts the Requiem at pitch. Both end up a bit murky (including the low parts in the L'homme armé) — & do recall that Visse's group had been supported by organ, helping to bolster what was a relatively coherent interpretation for the time. (One might also remark that another L'homme armé setting, as attributed by Meconi, remains unrecorded. It's a later, canonic work, and one of only a few La Rue cycles that isn't recorded at this point. I might note that none of the individual mass movements has been recorded, however, which might not seem curious given the preoccupation with full cycles, but then many movements have appeared as extracts anyway....) So whereas the previous SATF La Rue album presented later technical tour de forces, here after the relatively youthful Missa L'homme armé, they've presented relatively straightforward (albeit still challenging) mature settings on plainchant themes. And so this disc was added to my personal list.29 December 2018
I'll have multiple items to discuss in this space within a few weeks (albeit perhaps not until the New Year), but I'm still waiting on at least one package from Europe so as to do some comparative listening. (In fact, I haven't yet listened to some of the recent items I've already received, since I've been quite occupied otherwise.) In the meantime, I do want to make a note regarding the sixth volume of The Orlando Consort Machaut Edition: The most notable item on this release is the extended Le lay de confort in three-voice canon, and the new rendition is clearly the most accomplished to appear so far. Although it can be a bit repetitive & cadentially oriented, it has to be considered as one of Machaut's most imposing individual works. (It had been recorded twice previously, but a full six of the monophonic lais have not. Nor has a rondeau or two of the ballades, all three for two voices. And Orlando have now recorded only three of the nineteen lais, so that genre starts to become the largest outstanding component of Machaut's output. Will anyone have the stomach to fill entire albums with unaccompanied, monophonic poetry? We might find out....) There's also the popular De Fortune (& the alternative version makes for a worthwhile comparison) & Je vivroie liement, as well as other appealing songs — no first recordings, though. I should note further that I'm enjoying the recorded sound at this point, so prior concerns have been resolved. This continues to be a worthwhile series.4 December 2018
I thought that I didn't have enough to say about the recent Binchois Consort album to be worth making a note, but now I'm thinking that it makes a good entry into a discussion of The Liberation of the Gothic by Graindelavoix: First of all, this is the former's second "multimedia" program around the English repertory from the Hundred Years War, in particular referencing alabaster figures of the Virgin, albeit only in the text that accompanies (and thus mediates) the musical program. Such a trans-sensory exploration has a general appeal, even if I didn't find myself especially intrigued. In particular, I mostly found myself thinking — amid this generally appealing, mixed program — that there still aren't ideal albums devoted to Dunstaple or Frye. (The latter has had nearly everything recorded, in generally decent performances, but usually scattered in broader programs. The former not only has fewer dedicated albums, at least of late, than his stature might suggest, but arguably, has yet to even have a thorough presentation of his overall style appear on record.) Returning to an orientation on The Liberation of the Gothic, then, both Dunstaple & Frye present parallels to Continental polyphony from the life of Dufay, the former with his early work, and the latter with his later mass cycles. In the following English generations, though, my interest tends to wane relative to Franco-Flemish polyphony (where it waxes), until reemerging around the mature post-Reformation style of Byrd et al., as again paralleling the Continent. (And in my case, it's the instrumental music that's of particular interest, likely — or simplistically — because the religious content of the sacred vocal works was strongly affected by political fashion. In other words, abstract musical considerations dominated instrumental music, although one cannot discount stealth messaging.) One can attribute such a decline in the later fifteenth century exactly to the events circumscribed by the Binchois Consort series, the ultimate defeat of the Plantagenets in the Hundred Years War, and then the political & social chaos of the War of the Roses, during which the remaining Plantagenets were exterminated as a political force. The wars provide a historical context for what the music itself suggests, namely withdrawal & introversion: Enter Graindelavoix with their program of two Marian pieces by John Browne, as well as the especially florid Missa Ave Maria by Thomas Ashwell. As the intro might suggest, it had been a while since I had given a serious listen to this repertory, as it had largely faded from my consciousness over the past two decades. Björn Schmelzer generally has intriguing things to say about his programs, though, and definitely tries to reimagine their contexts, so that provided my motivation to have a listen: Here, first of all, he not only makes the sensible observation that this era presents an opportunity to consider English aesthetics apart from strong Continental interaction, but further implies that since English aesthetics somehow came to dominate the world via Empire, we should better understand its early modern trajectory. (I agree that aesthetics are often more important than suggested by mainstream history, and so want to be sure not to imply that aesthetics followed Empire. The reverse is quite conceivable.) On this point, I've already suggested a notion of withdrawal, and indeed a renewed cloistering of English creative practice, such that the Dissolution of the Monasteries (only fifty years after the Tudor victory) created a sort of slingshot effect: Ritual music that had only recently become even more privately oriented was suddenly forced into public view, including via new (emerging capitalist) forms of economic survival, etc. (One might further note that there was not a similar musical — as opposed to economic — withdrawal in the closing days of the English Empire. Indeed, the "English Invasion" of the Beatles et al. was anything but a withdrawal, such that the modern era arrived in England with a far different trajectory than it ended, and not even with a real inversion: A last grasp at world relevance, perhaps?) Further, Schmelzer is concerned with a particular genre of private ritual, namely the veneration of the Virgin as exemplified in earlier generations by the English Ladymass. (And regarding patriarchy, veneration of the Virgin accompanied Christianity more generally, including throughout this era in Franco-Flemish polyphony, although perhaps nowhere more strongly than in England. After all, these people did ultimately accept a Queen, despite various contemporary laments. (And moreover, as discussed elsewhere [*], patriarchy actually intensified during the early modern period as a whole, so Schmelzer's liberation is more of a last gasp....)) He discusses these relations not with figur(in)es, then, but rather with architecture, and in particular, the Decorated Style — rather than the "solid" cathedral architecture of foundations, etc. In other words, and most of my remarks here are only inspired by Schmelzer, he's suggesting parallels (& inspirations) not with the free-standing architecture of cathedral building itself, but rather with the various internal "decorative" elements that suggest not only a womb-like sense of enclosure, but lend a general sensuality to those interiors. In prior decades, I had characterized the distinctive aspects of Continental polyphony according to rhetorical "foundations" — as opposed to the more abstract, florid style in England — but Schmelzer's remarks suggest that such a foundation was not only rhetorical, but more literal: It suggests music with a free-standing structure of its own, its own sense of solidity, rather than as sonic embellishment of other structures (i.e. cathedrals). So what is the historical-technical basis for such a divergent summary? One straightforward observation is that England's withdrawal was contemporaneous with "liberation" of the bass around Ockeghem, not the bass as another filigree part (as in e.g. the Ashwell Mass), and not simply to underline harmonies generated from the tenor, but as a structural element. Whereas "the irrational" remains prominent in Ockeghem's intuitive style, such a structural innovation was quickly placed into rationalizing contexts — i.e. large-scale, formal structures — by Continental polyphonists such as Busnoys & Obrecht. This is precisely the step that did not occur in England, and given Schmelzer's remarks, one might agree that an irrational sense of mystery was retained intentionally, and for religious reasons (that were demolished, particularly in England, by subsequent generations & their drive to worldly power). As phrases & motifs move around seemingly at random, as even the bass is indulging in diminution, rather than "supporting," there is a resulting disorientation for the listener, apparently intended to bring about religious insight. (And that such a sense of mysticism is more Catholic than Protestant is clear — even as Catholicism had developed a rather practical medieval philosophy as well.) Moreover, was such a capricious work as Ashwell's Missa Ave Maria constructed to trigger particular chapel resonances (& so messages from particular sources within the chapel decor)? Schmelzer does not suggest as much, but recall that similar claims have been made regarding Machaut's Nostre Dame Mass.... A very specific physical setting might have been involved (whereas writing for a non-specific setting might have inspired on the Continent, as manuscripts increasingly traveled). That said, and note that Ashwell's six-voice setting is roughly contemporaneous with the greatest cycles of Josquin & La Rue, not to mention to have become a significant influence on John Taverner, and thus on the post-Dissolution English musical world, his generation (the immediate pre-Dissolution generation) seems to have taken this sense of irrationality to its height. (And note that, lacking the Kyrie, English mass cycles start out with an unwieldy text, rather than one more suitable for establishing motivic relations. So a style yielding a sense of mysticism likely emerged from other constraints as well, although once again, there are chicken & egg questions: Which came first?) In the generation prior, as represented on The Liberation of the Gothic by the extended pieces by Browne, the Eton Choirbook is relatively more rational — if lacking the bass developments just noted. Indeed, Schmelzer makes an Obrecht comparison himself, and that's where my mind went, to the antiphons in particular. (I might also note a structural affinity to the long mass cycles by Faugues, in e.g. Browne's extended Stabat Mater: Phrases are linked similarly, although Browne injects more variety, while Faugues develops some early textural climaxes. And the structural foundation on the Continent allowed musicians to build long-form climaxes — beyond simply shifting revelry & in accord with a rhetorical impetus.) Obrecht's soaring lines do sound analogous, even if Obrecht's sense of structure becomes apparent in the written score (& so subliminally to the ear?), and moreover, one should probably associate "sensuality" with Marian music more broadly.... Such a soaring style then yields the even more filigreed & diversified settings of Ashwell et al., such that the "ethereal" English sound, as beloved by both the Restoration & twentieth century revival, begins to appear — only to transform into the gritty, grounded Elizabethan style. (And note that it was left to English consort music to explore a subsequent fascination with bass....) So all that said (and the complexity of my textual interventions is probably confusing too...), I do enjoy the Ashwell mass, although "intended to confuse the listener" is not generally my preference. (But frankly, why shouldn't it be? I've been fighting the overly rationalized for years.... I still believe in actual teaching at some point, though, not simply confusion!) Graindelavoix generally provides excellent, energetic performances, and this is no exception. Perhaps the result is too resonant, but then, maybe that's intentional too. Does the music evoke the (invaginated?) intimacy of a lady chapel? Does e.g. Ockeghem evoke (sensuous) physicality per se in his relatively early Missa L'homme armé? Perhaps. And specific music aside, thanks go to Schmelzer for provoking thoughts on cross sensory modalities in these more specific historical terms....6 September 2018
Ensemble Gilles Binchois has returned, once again, to Notre Dame repertory (or, in this case, the allied Codex Las Huelgas) with Fons luminis, an anthology involving a variety of genres from the period. I don't know that I really have much to say about this new effort (once again) on Evidence Classics, but do want to note here that I added it to my personal list. Performance practice seems to be quite advanced in this repertory at this point, which is always a welcome development. I guess I should add that it's something of a historical accident (with regard to interpretive programs) that there are two versions of Perotin's Sederunt principes on my list, but now none of its companion, Viderunt omnes. Isn't it about time for someone to take another pass at a "complete" Perotin album? (The present program is entirely anonymous, which is certainly not an indication of low quality, but does leave the pieces with less sense of history, however illusory that might be.)24 August 2018
When I first heard that Diabolus in Music was doing a Requiem program devoted to Ockeghem & La Rue, of course I wanted to hear what they had done with these pieces, but I also wasn't sure. After all, these are "war horses" in some sense, at least relative to repertory of this era, this being the 18th complete recording of the Ockeghem cycle & 12th of the La Rue. I also felt as though the Ockeghem cycle is fairly well "plumbed," so to speak, and indeed I don't think that Antoine Guerber & company show anything new about the piece, but they do produce an outstanding performance, and that's always welcome. I was even surprised that they incorporated some cadential ornaments, perhaps as a nod to Ensemble Organum, but as stated in the comments on my personal list, it works well. My misgivings on the La Rue arose from the notion of pitch & how the piece has typically been transposed to fit into a smaller overall range: Extreme Singing by the obscure Vox Ensemble was the first to perform it at pitch, and I found the result compelling. (Indeed, the 11th recording of the piece, that by Cappella Pratensis, appeared — together with the 17th recording of the Ockeghem! — shortly afterward, and despite its strengths, I wasn't really able to appreciate the transposed performance.) But Diabolus in Musica adopt this approach as well, so perhaps it is or will be generally accepted... it sounds correct to me. (Perhaps I should also note, somewhat indulgently, that they do not address my suggestion from a couple of decades ago that the "lost" Dufay Requiem is actually embedded in the beginning of Ockeghem's cycle.... Perhaps such a suggestion is simply unanswerable, or was disproven somewhere I didn't notice: As my center of gravity has shifted to more contemporary activities, I don't notice the non-recording literature to the degree that I once did....) Altogether then, as I remark in the other comments, this isn't a groundbreaking album, but it's quite welcome nonetheless. Now I suppose I should wonder (or worry) why the Bayard Musique label isn't more widely distributed....18 August 2018
I've kept an eye on Sequentia's productions of music prior to or from outside of the geographic or cultural confines of "regular" medieval music, i.e. the emergence of both the vernacular troubadour repertory & two-voice polyphony out of the Carolingian Renaissance and into the Notre Dame phenomenon. By the twelfth century, and especially into the thirteenth, whereas there are various musical mysteries of various scopes, there is also a large supply of documents & materials — written music, often from a variety of sources, theoretical or other textual discussions, etc. The volume of material allows for a kind of cross referencing, especially as iterated through various practical performance opportunities over the years, that in turn builds confidence in a correspondence between today's musical results & earlier sounds. I shouldn't overstate this confidence or correspondence, however, as e.g. details of tuning have only been investigated over the past couple of decades, and details of vocal timbre even more recently, etc. And so, whereas the earlier or adjunct material that has continued to fascinate Sequentia over the years comes with less direct information to study, and so brings more uncertainty, in many ways, that's only a matter of degree. (One might even say that this material brings more to study, as the absence of direct sources can prompt studying an entire surrounding web of indirect sources... up to the limits of cultural production in total.) Still, my interest emerges with those better known repertories, the pre- & Notre Dame polyphony, and the troubadours, and indeed intensifies with polyphony of the fourteenth & fifteenth centuries.... From that perspective, the mysterious monophonic songs pursued by Sequentia have seemed less compelling, musically speaking, and not simply more obscure. However, while this material might be musically obscure, it's often culturally just the opposite: E.g. the Icelandic sagas or indeed Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy are iconic, the latter having broadly conditioned Western thought well into the Renaissance period (after directly influencing e.g. Machaut & so many others...) & beyond. So all that said, whereas I wanted to hear the new Songs of Consolation reconstruction from Sequentia & scholar Sam Barrett, I had no expectation of putting it onto my personal list — but the music itself won me over, even to the point of rearranging some sections in that part of the site. The interpretation is largely based on deciphering (via cross reference, trial & error, etc.) notation surviving from Canterbury in the 1000s, i.e. roughly 500 years after Boethius. (And so, whereas one might consider the accuracy of this reading of 1000s notation, there is little or no way to judge its correspondence with the sixth century sound world of Boethius. I'll simply set such a presumptive correspondence aside.) This has not been Bagby's first attempt with this music either, but Barrett's work (published in a large 2013 study) seems to have taken the reconstruction to another level: Again, whether or not this music is "accurate" in any sense, it is certainly striking, and creates a uniquely affective album today. (And as the notes suggest, the principals spent many years working on this music, both together & separately. This result didn't arrive overnight. There is also apparently a "making of" video on Youtube, but I don't patronize the garish & obnoxious "Youtube," so can't say anything else about that.) In other words, I have no direct way to judge the accuracy of the reconstruction, but it's not derivative: It forges a real style, whatever that style may be. Beyond the murky "earliness" then — and the program includes some of the earliest surviving Western European instrumental tunes as well — this is also aristocratic music, in the direct sense with Boethius himself, but also prefiguring the elite impulses giving rise to the troubadours & Notre Dame (& indeed Western philosophy). Its historical influence is thus a highly charged one. Yet, crucial to this space, one actually has the feel of listening to something new... er, I mean, I guess, old. The strength of the musical result was thus also quite unexpected.9 July 2018
I suppose I've already said most of what I want to say about The Dufay Spectacle in the notes from my personal list, but perhaps some more thoughts are in order here: In particular, whereas the Cantica Symphonia album devoted to two masses, released in 2014, was an excellent & welcome interpretive development for that repertory, the secular music (& especially the chansons) have been relatively neglected of late. Dufay's output is vast & varied, and so such things may be understandable from a cyclic perspective, but then, secular music by composers of subsequent decades has been relatively neglected of late too... (as mentioned here so often already). Of course, with the complete set (recorded in 1980), not to mention intermittent attention for a century, Dufay's chansons are not truly neglected! Still, it surprised me that it had been so long since such a program, Mille Bonjours! recorded in 2006, appeared. That program, although it didn't include motets as here, was likewise in sections meant to evoke different moods. (Given the New Year's celebration theme of the Spectacle, it might also be compared to a program such as Clemencic's Machaut cycle in its mixed inspiration. Yet that program moves explicitly into church music, whereas this does not — despite that some of these ceremonial motets were conceived for performance in churches.) So I might have preferred an album focusing on the chansons, but the result is particularly good for the motets... albeit "only" five of them. The "lushness" of some of the tracks seems both appropriate & novel for Gothic Voices, so they should be congratulated for continuing to develop their style, and indeed the result here is an accomplishment. (I did not actually expect to enjoy this album so much from its description.) Perhaps there will be a followup album? Perhaps these are enough remarks from me for now....22 May 2018
The Orlando Consort Machaut Edition continues with Fortune's Child, which is the fifth issue. I don't have too much to say about this disc individually, and have yet to really rework my "personal entry" on the series.... (A crude count of Machaut's works suggests that they are not quite half done at this point. So there is much more to come.) Certainly it retains a stark quality in keeping with the English all-vocal interpretation. (The starkness can be an asset at times, but I also find myself sometimes wishing for more richness of timbre and/or ornament.) The precision & attention to detail remain welcome, as is the ongoing facility, which can only increase as the project continues.... There's also the issue of the recorded sound, which they've been balancing better. Still, I have to wonder why the insistence on such a resonant acoustic, and indeed on recording in a church? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, and seems to be about making some sort of statement outside of the music. (And I suppose that since I'm hearing the CD version, it's entirely possible that the higher bandwidth digital versions that Hyperion is offering online render the sound quality an unmitigated asset. I don't know about that, but my question applies nonetheless.) Anyway, I'm continuing to appreciate the series, and wanted to note the latest release here.7 May 2018
I was expecting to enjoy the new La Rue double album by Beauty Farm, but it has exceeded expectations: Whereas I was most looking forward to another Missa Tous les regretz recording (as one of La Rue's most characteristic late parody masses on his own material), and had become intrigued with the Missa Almana (perhaps La Rue's first mass cycle, which is interesting enough) after it had been repositioned (again) as Missa Pourquoy non by William Kempster (including by his own recording from 2007), I didn't expect the other two masses to be especially notable. However, perhaps in part because of the emerging performance practice, meaning that these cycles are better interpreted & expressed than most others of the period at this point (in part by virtue of being the most recently addressed), the relatively early Missa Puer natus est & Missa de Sancto Antonio make strong individual impressions too. These are all four voice cycles, the similar forces contributing to the overall power of the program, meaning that they exist (particularly the one later cycle, Tous les regretz) in something of a different series from that of the five-part cycles (or the six-part "unicorn"). They're also, as opposed to the "premiere" assertion prominently displayed on the package, all second recordings, the first having been made by Kempster or Michel Sanvoisin in all four cases, which is curious enough: One might go on to ask what "really" constitutes releasing a premiere recording, but particularly given the analysis Kempster has published on Pourquoy non, the production thus comes off as somewhat underinformed or even disrespectful. (Nonetheless, although taking up some of Kempster's observations would have undoubtedly improved the Missa Pourquoy non interpretation, the result is impressive. That said, Kempster's recording, with amateur singers, is a credible interpretation too. Sanvoisin has likewise been focusing on La Rue for a long time, having recorded six mass cycles, plus a handful of other pieces, over the years.) The notes do make mention of the historical Pourquoy non ascription, but not of the more recent literature. I also find the suggestions that La Rue's reputation was mainly based on his mass cycles, and that he never surpassed his early works in the genre, to be flatly inaccurate. That said, perhaps the author is implying that La Rue's motets (as opposed to his chansons, which are clearly at the apex of their genre, or even his diverse "ritual works") are of relatively more modest stature (as a group) — and simply asserting (correctly) that La Rue's early cycles are not to be missed. All that said, this double album was an easy addition to my personal list, and something I've enjoyed over & over since receiving it from Germany only a couple of weeks ago: Both program & interpretation are so impressive! Although I'd still like to see Beauty Farm release more motet programs, this set of four mass cycles really shows how far interpretations of music of the period have come: It's one of the most compelling such albums ever to appear, and the fact that it consists of music that had been relatively anonymous speaks for itself. Exceeding (high) expectations is a wonderful thing, especially when so much from our contemporary moment (& so much more than medieval music recordings!) has been underwhelming (or worse)....6 April 2018
Jenkins' four-part consort music (mostly fantasias) continues to attract interest, most recently with a new complete recording from Fretwork. There's no discussion of how they decided what did & didn't belong in this "complete" collection, just as there is no discussion of repertory accompanying Spirit of Gambo's second volume — which includes material not on this set, but also fills some obvious gaps from their first volume. (It also includes some tracks involving organ, so that seems different enough.) I guess I hadn't been following some of Fretwork's recent albums, particularly as they continue to venture outside of "consort music" proper, but I do note that the personnel is almost entirely different from their days as pioneers: Richard Boothby remains, and so apparently this is his ensemble now (and maybe it always was?). In any case, it's worthwhile to be able to hear a different interpretation of this repertory (at least the fourth that's at least partially "complete"), and it's interesting that the four-part music seems to attract the most attention. Presumably this is because of its similarity (in forces) to the coming (and eventually dominant) string quartet oeuvre, but do note that Jenkins' fantasias are generally for treble, two tenors & bass, rather than doubling the top end. In any case, the Fretwork set is enjoyable, even elegant, but I'd call it more rhetorical than Spirit of Gambo, and less colorful. (This might be because the latter use larger instruments with less string tension, but then, Fretwork doesn't state the nature of their instruments in this regard.) There's almost an austere mood in comparison with the richer sound of the latter. The differences are modest, however, and the Fretwork set is perfectly recommendable as an illustration of some of the central music of this general repertory. That so many English consort performances come off in such satisfying manner these days is certainly a welcome development.15 March 2018
I've never been one to root around in archives or scour original sources for personal information about composers (nor have I wanted to be): I've been more interested in the music "itself" and simply read such personal details as others uncovered them. As the scare quotes imply, though, there's really no such thing as context-free music, and even though a general context for c.1500 sacred polyphony clearly exists, I'm obviously not immune to thinking about individual pieces according to the composers who wrote them. It can be helpful in appreciating the music — as can various other details of circumstance that sometimes emerge from the historical record, or alternately remain obscure. Meanwhile, given the high reputation of Josquin Desprez, if not the towering (and, to me, overstated) reputation sometimes portrayed, I always imagined that the details of his life & work chronology would eventually resolve themselves to a much greater degree. Even when the Milanese Josquin (Dascanio) started throwing question marks into some long-accepted narratives, I expected clarity to re-emerge. Well, at this point, biographical clarity is starting to look unlikely (or finally seeming impossible). Indeed, it seems we might have to accept never really knowing what is or isn't part of Josquin's body of work, and not only in a few fringe cases, but across a broad swath of otherwise major pieces. I've also been involved (at times) in making judgments on whether a piece "sounds like" it's by a particular composer, and sometimes I feel pretty confident about that, but at this point, Josquin's work is so diffuse — if that term makes sense — that it's actually becoming difficult to eliminate anything stylistically. (One might still make judgments based on quality, but there are early pieces, e.g. Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, that betray even that notion.) The alternative would seem to be to restrict his confirmed output to a handful of prominent works that are usually taken to anticipate later style (i.e. Palestrina), and that's part of the issue: Josquin's reception has been so strongly conditioned subsequently, and based on so many historical prejudices derived from "progress" orientations toward modern music, that such an "arc" of development has taken on a life of its own. However, as a recent recording, by a couple of previously unknown ensembles, of a Missa Quem dicunt homines — attributed to Josquin in its only source, but dismissed stylistically in the mid-twentieth century — indicates (and the accompanying discussion brings out many of these issues), there might be (among other things) later parts of his output that are in new styles. In fact, perhaps his stylistic range was quite broad: We seem to think nothing of this being the case for e.g. Isaac, but then, Isaac is not taken as the paradigm for modern musical development. (Moreover, similar questions have already existed around e.g. the Missa Di dadi, which I particularly enjoy, and are even being considered around other prominent works. So this has been a simmering issue.) Whereas the previously unknown singers do indulge in some clichés of modern Renaissance choral interpretations such as muted timbres, ritardandi, and sighing dynamics, they do actually keep a good pulse & project a strong rhythmic energy. (In fact, it's largely the opening Richafort motet to which those complaints apply, so that's probably a matter of the music itself.) Consequently, the interpretation didn't make a strong impression on me at first, but the more I listen, the more I appreciate the work they've done to bring this music to life, and the album has been added to my personal list. (I also wonder how long it took to make the recording, as this information is entirely absent from the documentation.) The mass cycle itself takes up some notions from the French court around Richafort & other composers who haven't particularly struck my ear: That circle, one Josquin would have taught & inspired, is the origin of the specific style of the mass, as well as of the original thematic material. Within that orbit, the present mass seems to have had some prominence: Josquin's former students convinced him to write a parody mass to join — or even validate — their project? It's an intriguing idea, and the result is impressive — even "showy," & as the notes argue, Josquin did like to outdo others musically. This is a parody mass of high density & uncharacteristic dissonance (for Josquin), but it also shows such a sense of elegance.... The fast repetition of short motifs is characteristic of Josquin in many works, but one thing this mass doesn't do is build to longer, more climactic movements — its arc is more centered, a la La Rue. (Perhaps this is due to the use of a motet for the Elevation, for unknown reasons. And I guess the entire mass is made to end with the feel of a question? That aspect could have been handled a little better in the interpretation.) So if the Missa Quem dicunt homines is by Josquin, it adds a new dimension to his output. (I guess that goes without saying. Perhaps the consonant, Italianate Josquin, in which I would e.g. include the Missa Pange lingua, was never the "final" Josquin then?) The first recording of Josquin's "other" genealogy motet also grows in prominence with exposure, seeming less awkward (that based mostly on the challenging text) & even potent. Altogether, this is an impactful album, seemingly from out of nowhere.4 March 2018
Although they've mostly focused on later music, and their interpretive style still owes quite a bit to the even later English Cathedral repertory (with its large, stratified ensembles), I was very appreciative of the Brabant Ensemble's La Rue disc, and especially its Missa Inviolata, which has become one of my favorite La Rue cycles. So of course I was going to listen to their Obrecht disc, which involves music from a couple of decades earlier still. (I'll also note that a recording like this, i.e. a late December release, would have made me crazy back in the days of doing year end reviews. I'm glad that's no longer an issue.) The major work on the program is the Missa Grecorum, presumably part of Obrecht's mature & characteristic outpouring of mass cycles c.1490, but it includes other premieres as well. The tune behind the Missa Grecorum is unidentified, but possibly has a connection to the Eastern Church via Vatican ceremonies. Unlike the more rhetorical Missa Inviolata, though, I don't hear the Missa Grecorum as a major "new" work: I'm not sure that it improves my appreciation for Obrecht at all, in fact, although it's an enjoyable piece of music. The (also premiered here) motet on St. Basil is more intriguing in this regard, but the performance starts to weigh on my appreciation: Although the feeling of "rhythmic shear" from e.g. the opening homophony of the mass is striking, the ensemble often seems to be playing catch up, i.e. to lack rhythmic vigor, even becoming mechanical & ponderous at times. It doesn't seem that Brabant's typical mid-16th century orientation fits Obrecht's music very well, since it requires rhythmic precision together with an ecstatic quality. The vocal blend likewise seems more out of joint here than on their La Rue (which deploys more explicit alternation anyway), with high voices sometimes sticking oddly out of an otherwise muddy texture. The opening Salve regina seems so foggy & stagnant... although the mass interpretation that follows has some appealing sections. (I'm not happy with the proliferation of track markers either, since as noted elsewhere, that makes it more difficult to program e.g. a single mass. Perhaps I should have complained more when A:N:S Chorus started doing this, but then, their recordings were truly new & exciting....) Nonetheless, this is the most ambitious Obrecht program in a while, and so worth hearing. Actually, it's unclear to me if there's anything exciting left to discover in Obrecht's masses (which remain his most important works). I wouldn't bet against it, though.22 January 2018
Although it's later music than I most often mention here, I wanted to make a few remarks about the new album by Graindelavoix featuring Cypriano de Rore, Portrait of the Artist as a Starved Dog. First of all, Björn Schmelzer discusses the title in relation to both actual portraits of De Rore & an image by Dürer (with the "actual" starved dog), as well as in relation to notions of "divine" artistry applied (not for the first time) in the sixteenth century, e.g. especially to Michelangelo. The program focuses on Rore's madrigals, but also includes secular motets, a hybrid genre of the period with similar themes & expressivity, and divides his output into three phases. They also approach the singing without diminutions, and so despite some instrumental accompaniment, produce a rather austere reading: Yet this is precisely a reading that illuminates Rore's previously unprecedented emotional range. I've generally found Schmelzer's interpretations to be thought provoking, and as the forgoing remarks suggest, this is no exception. It's also not unusual for me to be drawn more to interpretations of later music by musicians who have mostly worked with earlier music — rather than the other way around — and Graindelavoix bring a firm fifteenth century (& even Ars Antiqua) footing to this mid-sixteenth century repertory. From the perspective of a medievalist this music is indeed late, but from a perspective critiquing Western global imperialism (the world-defining activity of the historical "modern era" per se), it's early: One can note the (relatively novel, then, to become more common with Monteverdi et al.) turn to imperial (Greek & Roman) antiquity for themes & inspiration, and one can ponder the emotionality (differing from the relatively staid previous couple of generations) in response to world conquest. Rore was writing a couple of generations after the epochal change announced by Columbus' voyage — barely longer than we are now from the end of the modern era (by my rough periodization, as e.g. articulated elsewhere) — and so one can further note the uncertainty, the tragedy, the interrogation of hubris & anguished human feeling deriving from the antique thematic material. Such an orientation is in sharp contrast to the feelings of mastery that would be consolidated with the so-called "enlightenment," i.e. the era of the subsequent "classical period" in musical terms, and is moreover prior to the regularization of rhythm e.g. via bar lines (definitively with Corelli), not to mention the (anti-polyphonic) hierarchical rigidity of recitative-continuo style. One can in turn note the impetus toward elitism deriving from these neo-imperial concerns, not only the far-flung dramatic material (that would soon manifest even more spectacularly in the "opera" genre, particularly as it came to emphasize the soloist), but the separation of "the composer" from humanity more generally — as implicitly traced by Schmelzer's discussion of divinity. (And indeed the rise of portraiture per se in this period marks a rethinking of the subject in modern terms.) In other words, this music retains the feel of a newly globalized class structure becoming intensified & yet still distended — much as now: This is music of extremes (articulated quite persuasively by Schmelzer & his group), with nothing cute or quaint. It traces a human tragedy that the "divine" De Rore was still able to feel directly — if articulate indirectly. (There is nothing of the smug perfection of e.g. Mozart here, although one might also contrast the systemization of musical affect by e.g. Marini, writing only fifty years after Rore.) This is dangerous music, without a (conceptual) net, and so some of the most dynamic to witness & grapple with the early modern (epochal) transition.9 January 2018
With their fourth album — nearly two hours of four masses by Noel Bauldeweyn — Beauty Farm heads off into unknown repertory, after largely mimicking The Sound and the Fury with two Gombert albums followed by an Ockeghem album. (The latter was also released this year, so they're increasing their pace too.) They also seem to have confirmed an emphasis on mass cycles once again, an emphasis that doesn't necessarily thrill me, given the ample repertory that is correspondingly (& badly) neglected, but I do understand: Not only are these mass cycles impressive monuments, but emphasizing a single genre has allowed these (related) ensembles to focus on counterpoint & personality, and (technical) details in general, without worrying so much about different genres & texts. So it makes sense, but hopefully soon e.g. some other motet albums will appear. The previous album — and perhaps The Sound and the Fury's last? — where the repertory per se made such an impression on me (as opposed to the interpretation of relatively known repertory) was the Pipelare double album, and in that case, I had every reason to rue not having paid more attention to Pipelare previously: There were previous albums devoted to his music, although none had managed to make a big impression on me. (That changed significantly, given the sheer originality, scope & quality involved in the tantalizing selection of four complete masses.) In the case of Bauldeweyn (ever Baldwin?), however, there had been almost nothing to hear, making him quite obscure today, and so in that sense, his music is even more of a revelation. Like Pipelare, Bauldeweyn (who was apparently younger, but didn't live as long, although all of this is sketchy) was apparently a contemporary of La Rue, with his most important works also documented by the Alamire scriptorium. In that case, he's also a direct contemporary of Josquin (again maybe not by age, but by years of peak activity), and whereas the notes suggest that Bauldeweyn is something of a bridge between Obrecht & Gombert — a perfectly good suggestion, although I don't really hear much Obrecht, personally — his music also shows some of the same rhetorical or discursive skill & focus. The previous comparison is related to the general density of Bauldeweyn's writing (at least here), which doesn't show the same predilection for rests or reduced forces as Josquin, but the textual orientation nonetheless suggests similar concerns. (One might think e.g. of a less motivically insistent version of the Josquin of Missa Malheur me bat et al. — otherwise the most Obrechtian Josquin, I suppose.) The resulting style is distinctive, and so Bauldeweyn must enter conversations regarding the greatest polyphonists of the greatest age of Western polyphony — and the album is duly added to my personal list. Beyond Pipelare, whose style shows even more vitality & variety, La Rue's Missa Incessament — one of his masterpieces, and one that would benefit from an updated interpretation — comes to mind by way of comparison for Bauldeweyn's opening Missa En douleur en tristesse, perhaps the biggest highlight. Impressive. So who or what does Beauty Farm have in store to reveal next?7 November 2017
I 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>