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.
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
Readers interested in less traditional explorations of early music repertory might also be interested in discussions I've written this month in my "Jazz Thoughts" section regarding Quatour Machaut from Ayler Records & Lachrymae by James Falzone.14 December 2015
A recent program by Cappella Romana presents pieces from the relatively well-known Turin manuscript of Ars Nova music from French-ruled Cyprus alongside contemporaneous Cypriot music from Eastern sources in the Byzantine tradition. My knowledge of the Byzantine material, and its musical history in the period, is minimal, but the opportunity to hear it alongside the styles of Western Europe is valuable. (And the pieces of the Turin manuscript have long been ascribed something of an "exotic" character, sometimes encapsulated by its "Ars Subtilior" periodization, but generally exceeding that label.) That these musics coexisted on the island would certainly seem to suggest that they cross-fertilized each other, although it's unclear if the Cypriot Turin manuscript had any subsequent influence on French or Italian music. It's usually viewed as a dead end in that sense, albeit one whose musical quality has been admired for at least a few decades now. In any case, the interpretations by this vocal ensemble from the Pacific Northwest — with which I otherwise have had only limited exposure — seem credible, and the performance is enjoyable.
Cantica Symphonia has released an impressive Isaac program, the most recent repertory that they've recorded in a while (although an older part of their discography includes albums devoted to Festa, and even Monteverdi). Much of the program is stated to be a first recording, including the mass at its center, as inspired by a recent doctoral thesis by Giuseppe Zanovello. (A couple of the motets are also reconstructions by Giuseppe Maletto.) The interpretation continues the ensemble's Italian orientation in its use of extensive instrumental doubling on some tracks, and indeed the notes emphasize Isaac's continued connection to Florence, even after he was forced to relocate in the wake of the Medicis being deposed. Whereas Isaac has not been a composer who has inspired me so much personally in his individual works, this release does illustrate more of the wonderful variety of easy-going polyphony that he was able to write in such quantity. (In that, he could be compared to Obrecht, but without the architectural-visual emphasis.) Isaac's "easy" style might make his individual pieces of secondary interest, but his massive output as a whole, precisely because of its consistently idiomatic quality, is of much significance for appraising the musical output of the era as a whole. The legacy of the Franco-Flemish school would not be the same without Isaac, and here listeners can hear an impressive & scholarly up-to-date interpretation of some of his appealing, italianate sacred music. The overall impression is very much one of solidity, rather than delicacy: The large ensemble used on some tracks gives Isaac's lines an imposing quality, evoking the spectacles of the Medicis, without sacrificing much in the way of clarity. One can consequently imagine that the solidity of his writing invites such treatment, particularly in some of the celebratory motets, but even in the clear-cut phrasing of the mass (and even if it's sung one-to-a-part here).8 December 2015
I was expecting more copious liner notes from an album titled "The Evidence", but they are actually rather brief. However, I did want to make a note of Pastor's impressive plucked (and a little bit of turned) finger-work on a half dozen medieval-derived instruments. The playing sounds idiomatic to me.
Let me also note that Psallentes, an ensemble generally known for singing plainchant, has included an early sixteenth century (anonymous) four-part mass cycle on their Missa Transfigurationis program. The brief mass cycle is more interesting as part of a historical phenomenon than for its musical setting per se, but Psallentes is entering this arena with a quality interpretation. (I wanted to note it in part because it wasn't clear to me from the cover that there is any polyphony on the album, which also includes two pieces by Févin.)17 October 2015
Another recent release to discuss is The Orlando Consort's second recording devoted to Compère, titled simply Loyset Compère, on Hyperion. I was a bit surprised by this release, because it came in the midst of their Machaut series, and so seems like a change to rather different material. Moreover, of the 79 original recordings we have listed in our Compère discography, there are actually two devoted entirely (or over half) to Compère, and both are by the Orlando Consort, with this second album joining the first twenty years later. (Two of four singers are in common between the two recordings.) Indeed, there are three other Orlando Consort albums with tracks by Compère, so it is probably safe to call them by far his biggest fans in the recording industry. Here, in keeping with their Machaut series, the focus is on chansons — plus a (lengthy) Magnificat, a (short & questionable) motet, & a motet-chanson. I've been calling (perhaps tediously, at this point) for more attention to chansons from the second half of the fifteenth century, so this is a welcome program. I suppose it's all a matter of fashion, but it continues to amaze me how dated the (relatively few) available programs of some of this secular material are at this point, and of course, Compère's secular music had never received such concentrated attention at all. (For instance, the Chansonnier Cordiforme set by the Consort of Musicke is from 1979!) Anyway, hopefully more will continue to appear.
Sadly, this recorded production seems to follow almost on cue from my previous, opposite comments about Beauty Farm: Here, the recorded sound is quite distant & blunted, such that whereas the top line can still be penetrating, it is often difficult to hear the lower voices. Note that this is not an issue with the Orlando Consort per se, as e.g. their Busnois disc, which also includes some chansons (and is rather more stiff in interpreting them than this more recent performance), does not suffer from this problem. There, on Harmonia Mundi, the voices are all relatively equally audible. In retrospect, this is an issue on their Machaut recordings (for Hyperion) as well, particularly the first. However, in the case of Compère, it is the lower/middle voices that generate much of the motivic structure, and include so many of the original details. So it's a bigger problem here, and detracts from the otherwise fine one-to-a-part all-male vocal conception.
That said, the liner notes continue a reappraisal of Compère's historical position, now crediting him as a major developer of the more motivic style. He's also seen (now) as an older contemporary of Agricola, the two writing the last innovative music in the formes fixes, which Compère apparently goes on to abandon (according to what the chronology seems to suggest). I would add a comparison to Caron's songs here, which are from a similar era, but demonstrate different (mostly temporal) innovations. (The older layer of Compère's songs might also be compared to the two surviving songs by Regis, who was older still. The newer layer involves even the frottola & other catchy material, anticipating the later Parisian chanson. This latter sort of material is not my favorite, however.) This transitional era thus produced a lot of intriguing & innovative material, before chanson styles were standardized again, perhaps most spectacularly in the masterful songs of La Rue, which were by then entirely different in style from those of e.g. Dufay, whose echo one can hear in early Compère. (Although The Sound and the Fury's recording of chansons on disc three of their Caron set is quite welcome, it is not their best interpretive work: The music comes off somewhat disjointed.)
Despite my concerns about the recorded sound (or mixing or mastering or whatever is precisely the issue), which is indeed quite lamentable for this specific material, this album was added to my personal list.25 August 2015
What appears to be the debut of a new all-male vocal ensemble called Beauty Farm has been released by the Fra Bernardo label, a double album of Gombert motets. As I wrote in adding it to my personal list, the interpretation is revelatory.
I don't know if it was a conscious choice for Beauty Farm to start with similar repertory to The Sound and the Fury's first two albums, but it's impossible not to compare, and indeed to reflect on ten years of recordings from The Sound and the Fury: Their first album, devoted to Gombert, was recorded in 2005. The second album, from 2006, was also devoted to Gombert, and although I liked those albums, and added them to my recommendations fairly promptly at the time, of course I had no idea that their discography would otherwise come to feature earlier music — with the exception of a third Gombert album from 2008 — and indeed feature several recordings of either iconic fifteenth century masterpieces, or previously neglected repertory (and sometimes both at once). The first two Gombert albums, as well as their first Ockeghem recording, which didn't make much impression on me, included a female soprano, but they were soon to abandon that practice, including on their third Gombert disc. This change facilitated their focus on tuning according to the middle lines of the textures, rather than the "angelic" top-down style that became so characteristic of English interpretations. (Quite possibly, the gender of the performers isn't important to this outcome in any technical sense, but it does seem to have an effect, if only in the matter of subsequent interpretive choices.) In any case, Beauty Farm seems to be on the same page as The Sound and the Fury regarding these interpretive developments (and includes bass Joachim Höchbauer in common), and indeed they produce even more clarity within the style: There is less resonance to the recording, hence less background "buzz," and so the listener is better able to follow the interior interplay. The lines sound more independent, with greater sonic space in which to operate, while their dependencies (particularly in motivating each other forward) are also set in sharper relief. It's an impressive result, and I saw something on Beauty Farm's site about plans to record Ockeghem & Barbireau. So that could be exciting. Maybe they intend to focus mostly on earlier music too?
Regarding Gombert himself, although he is generally described as "neglected," his discography is actually rather substantial at this point. I place him at more or less the end of the medieval style, or as one might say at this point, in a small post-medieval bubble. In other words, he follows La Rue & Josquin, etc., and doesn't turn to the simpler Renaissance harmonies. Some writers call his "the lost generation" of Franco-Flemish polyphony, musicians working in the wake of the European conquests in the Americas & elsewhere, i.e. in a very changed world, but retaining some of the previous understanding & attitude. With the next generation, presumptively not "lost," of Palestrina etc., we are more thoroughly into what I call (from this medieval perspective) modern music, i.e. music of the modern age, post-Council of Trent, etc. This generation starts to fall outside of my own interests (although in writing this, I start to think that perhaps I should look/listen over Lassus's large output one more time, as some writers consider him to be the last of the Franco-Flemish polyphonists). Gombert is specifically associated with Charles V, and the emperor did attempt to forbid abusive behavior toward native Americans, without much success. Those were difficult times, and Gombert's life had its own famous difficulties. In any case, he was also able to write some amazing music, developing & extending the polyphonic invention of the previous generation. After that, the demand for simpler music carried the day.
Beauty Farm focuses on the motets, which have generally been considered (at least since Reese) to be Gombert's best work. We seem to have had a phase, followed also by The Sound and the Fury, in which it became obligatory to include a mass cycle in any recording of Franco-Flemish polyphony. Although there are many amazing mass cycles, and it's great to have them recorded, I'll be glad for the passing of this obligation. The motets of the era are often every bit as brilliant, and their shorter length means more variety on an album. And with a double album, of course that variety is even more. Most of these motets were recorded by The Sound and the Fury as well, but here they are sung in a new edition by Jorge Martín, who surely deserves much credit for this release. Martín, quoting writers of the sixteenth century (hardly for the first time), describes Gombert's use of dissonance as "unprecedented." Some of the technical features of this music really are stunning, but I don't want to dwell on that, because the result is just so affectively compelling. This is indeed brilliant music, brilliantly executed for our ears today. It's nice to be reminded that the Europe of the sixteenth century could manage more, if only in small & paradoxical niches, than vomiting violence & death across the world.23 August 2015
Please excuse my two months delay in discussing it, as I had various other commitments intervening, but Phantasm continues their fine series of English consort music with their second album in a row devoted to William Lawes, this one oriented on the massive set, The Royal Consort. They perform the four viol & theorbo version, and supplement it with the remaining sets to the organ that might have otherwise fit on their previous album (plus a small miscellany). The liner notes are extensive, describing various details of the individual pieces and their allusions. Phantasm continues to develop their interpretive style, and indeed this album is very compelling, and added to my personal list. I had not really taken to these pieces previously, but those were other interpretations. Here the strange dances, with their irregular beats and sometimes humorous or magical implications, really come to life. This might not be practical dance music, but the physical references remain tangible. The Royal Consort is the height of a particular style, at least in the dance idiom, soon to be wiped away by the English Civil War & puritanism. The more rational style of the Restoration is simply not the same. This is unique music, even within Lawes' extensive output.14 July 2015
Diabolus in Musica might be the ensemble that has released the most albums, over the longest span of time, devoted to Notre Dame polyphony. I am not going to attempt to quantify that statement in detail or assess some kind of "winner" in this arena, but I do want to set a context for their latest Notre Dame oriented release. The other piece of context is that it was actually a 2014 release, but only recently, finally, appeared in this country. So, now I have heard it, and that makes commenting very much easier, to say the least.
The program, titled with rather too ubiquitous a term — Sanctus — to search for readily, continues the recent trend in this repertory, more broad than with Diabolus in Musica alone, for more expansive performances of fewer pieces. The downside is less different music on an album, but the less hurried character of the performances provides for much more satisfying individual tracks. (Whether this is the result of the well-known process of — ironically — "sanctification" of classical repertory, i.e. increasing stature leading to slower performances, or is more historically based, I'm not sure. It does seem to fit the music well.) The ensemble continues to feature (contemporary) tenor voices & lower in this repertory, a choice I also enjoy. Their execution of some of the multi-voice cadential ornaments is superb, as is the rest of the interpretation, and I've promptly added this album to my personal list. (It was four and a half years since I last made a change to that particular sub-list, which seems like a long time!)
I don't really have anything new to say about the significance of this repertory per se. Clearly it is a particular historical apex, and continues to receive at least moderate attention on recording.
Hopefully some other items of high interest will appear here before too long, but I have nothing specific on the horizon in this properly medieval domain.22 June 2015
I had previously heard of neither the label nor the ensemble, but the recording of Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé by Ensemble Nusmido is quite an entry into the repertory. The ensemble consists of former students of Rebecca Stewart singing one to a part, and also playing the instruments on the instrumental tracks. Stewart's chant-based approach included numerous insights, and indeed her legacy was recently acknowledged here with (her former ensemble) Cappella Pratensis's recording of Josquin's Missa Ave maris stella. With this new ensemble, however, the rather rhythmic underpinning of the chants on that album from last year is replaced by a rhetorical sweep that allows Ockeghem's lines to spin off in all directions. Although regular readers might recall that I've never thought that highly of his Missa L'homme armé, the rhetorical sweep of the present interpretation lends an entirely new perspective to the music, such that its open-ended quality seems to fit the topic in exemplary fashion, probing the nature of war, arms, etc. Although the ensemble downplays the significance of a technical approach in the notes, this sense of form is taken (at least in part) from their determination to sing from original notation, gathered around the manuscript, as well as a resulting emphasis on tonal alignment in the middle voices over a top-down (external) hierarchy — an approach to tuning for which I've praised The Sound and the Fury in the past. The unusual (31-beat) rhythm of the theme is thus able to drive diverging lines in what otherwise seems to be a straightforward cantus firmus setting: The seeming rigidity of the cycle, enforced in previous interpretations, thus melts away into meditative indeterminacy. (And let us not forget that some accounts consider Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé to have been of special historical importance, at least within his output. Unfortunately, we might never know the exact chronology of these cycles, although the earlier provenance of Dufay's has recently been reasserted, including by Cantica Symphonia's recording.) Beyond such success with a piece I can only now describe as having been enigmatic, Ensemble Nusmido's performance of Busnoys' In hydraulis (on winds, with bell as hammer) is simply amazing: I feel as though I'm also really hearing it for the first time. Pairing it with Ockeghem's response to Busnoys, the puzzle canon Ut heremita solus (a work that seems to have particularly attracted wind performances already), makes for a brilliant sequence, and Agricola's famous Cecus is enjoyable here on winds as well. Finally, closing with maybe-Morton's Il sera par vous setting of the L'homme armé theme, in which the voices imitate the strum of strings, shows yet another facet of ensemble technique. I was very pleasantly surprised by all of this, and so the album was added to my personal list. After such a debut, what will this ensemble possibly do next?7 April 2015
Ensemble Syntagma has released a mediabook devoted to Lescurel, including an extensive essay on the poetry & rhetoric of his Dit enté, Gracïeux temps. The emphasis on French poetry per se thus marks something of a change for the ensemble, although I'm told that they already intend another mediabook dealing with other 13th or 14th century French poetic repertory. Besides providing an extensive discussion of the intellectual history behind Lescurel's use of poetic form & rhetorical imagery, the notes call into question some commonplaces of his biography, conclusions I had previously accepted without much thought: They argue that the identification of this Lescurel with someone hanged in 1304 is incorrect, for instance, and that the only known manuscript of his music — also containing the Roman de Fauvel — was most likely written in 1316, perhaps by Lescurel himself. Identification of Lescurel with the trouvère generation (an identification I've followed here, calling him perhaps the last of the trouvères) was already well-established with Sequentia's recording in 1982, and continues with that of Ensemble Gilles Binchois in 1991, even if the latter does emphasize Lescurel's single surviving polyphonic piece. However, Ensemble Syntagma emphasizes the new styles Lescurel adopted via musical notation, and especially with his own achievements in poetry, thereby identifying him stylistically more with the 14th century than the 13th. In some sense, anything to do with periodization is academic, but such an orientation does allow an amazing analysis of Lescurel's Dit, placing it more carefully in its precise historical circumstances. Lescurel's achievement thus includes the sort of spontaneous formal creation within his writing that e.g. Machaut was only able to follow (rather than continuing to innovate). My emphasis here is on music & sound, though, and not poetry per se, even if there is important overlap. Within that orientation, although it's remarkable that it's been over 20 & 30 years since the earlier prominent Lescurel albums, the present mediabook's emphasis on the Dit makes for relatively few musical pieces (as compared with e.g. Ensemble Gilles Binchois' program). The songs included are strikingly performed, however, with a real vibrance gained over this period (and partly, no doubt, due to newer recording equipment). The notes also remind us that the single manuscript of Lescurel's music is alphabetical and cuts off at G, so it's likely that much has been lost. I'm actually reminded of e.g. Alla Francesca's recent Thibaut de Champagne program, which has a similarly striking vibrance, as well as some dramatic recitation. (Thibaut would have already been dead a few decades by the time Lescurel was born, however.) In that sense, I've already endorsed the sorts of sound & voice effects found in the Dit performance, even if dramatic tropes aren't necessarily my main interest. In any case, the mediabook is very successful at its intent, illuminating the various subtle relationships within the Dit, together with its historical context, including by surrounding it with some of Lescurel's most appealing songs. I consider poetic analysis of this sort to be invaluable, and indeed I believe that far more people should learn medieval rhetoric in the way it's presented here: Hopefully this work will lead to increased attention to the more musical side of the repertory, too.6 April 2015
The Orlando Consort has released The Dart of Love, the second volume of their Machaut Edition for Hyperion. So that project appears to be moving along. Although I don't share the obsession that some (particularly in England) appear to have with all-vocal performances, the resulting consistency of approach & sonority does have something to offer for a complete edition. I'm not sure how well the consistent timbres will appeal to the general listener over many hours of the ultimate result, and it continues to be audibly clear that some lines would be more idiomatic on strings, but I find the exercise worthwhile. That said, as the timbre comment suggests, the performances can also be a bit distant & low in energy sometimes. However, they do reward attention, and the two first recordings (both two voice ballades) have some intriguing melodic twists. One step this program takes, at least in the liner notes (by Anne Stone), is to dig into the chronology of Machaut's music, and how some of his songs relate to other songs of his era. This is a valuable step, as to this point, Machaut's music has usually been treated monolithically, perhaps broken down according to particular publication or by genre. The former approach does imply a particular point in time for a program, at least (although I don't know that anyone has studied possible recycling of material), but hasn't supported explicit exploration of the relation between the music and what comes before. (Even these notes make no mention of e.g. the virelai's hybrid cultural roots.) This is a welcome development, and the inclusion of some of the music that directly influenced Machaut has the potential to make this "edition" more interesting than I might have anticipated. In any case, I've added this item to the existing entry on my personal list, and look forward to future volumes. How many years do they intend to take? There are potential positives both to going quickly & going slowly, but I do want to note that the present pace suggests approximately a decade long project.22 February 2015
I've enjoyed The Spirit of Gambo's Jenkins discs: It's good to hear different perspectives on this music beyond the English consort ensembles, it's good to hear people pushing forward with interpretive ideas, and more specifically, I find this group's approach to both the instruments (by which I mean making them, mechanically, etc.) & playing together to be excellent & fitting for the music. So receiving their new album devoted to Tye was very welcome. In this case, they expand on their quartet lineup (as the vast majority of the music is in 5 parts), and the music is also almost a century older: These might be reasons for concern, but I found their Tye album quite enjoyable too. The Savall album was recorded over 25 years ago, which is kind of difficult to believe somehow. (Spirit of Gambo's was released last year, but for some reason, I don't see these right away.) It did succeed in attracting me to this music, but I always found it a bit fussy, and never entirely satisfying, so a new album has been welcome, and was added to my personal list. The other piece of this discussion, which I mention in that entry, is why Tye? How or why was he the guy to write this series of In Nomine works — an extended series of 21 variations, perhaps to be compared with the Goldbergs or Diabellis in the world of keyboard music? Not too much is known of Tye (c.1505-c.1573), but this record does note that he received doctorates from both Cambridge & Oxford, a degree that was not typical of musicians in his era. His political associations seem somewhat problematic to me, but I guess it was a symptom of the "free thinking" (that freedom could somehow involve restriction is nothing new, but the Puritans — whom Tye's benefactor seems to also reject, in anticipation, as too extreme — certainly put the icing on that cake) of the time. In any case, and given what appear to be family references & such in the variations, it seems that they were written (or at least conceived) over a number of years. I've not been as enthusiastic about the broader English repertory of this specific era as some people, but it was still a time of not only great change, but change that played a significant role in shaping subsequent centuries around the world. For whatever reason (and perhaps it's mostly a matter of access), Tye, via these pieces, is one of its iconic musical figures, in this case working within the instrumental idiom. I've never found his choral music to be as compelling, presumably because of its more public character. The consort music continues to be relatively singular, given its scope, something to be matched by other composers only decades later.
I should also note the new Jenkins Quartets album from Alberto Rasi & Accademia Strumentale Italiana, recorded a full five years after The Spirit of Gambo's first (which still seems very recent to me). I enjoyed many of Rasi's releases from several (or more) years ago, but had not noticed anything from him recently. It's interesting that his group is back (to releasing international albums) and calling itself a viol consort. This album didn't do much to dislodge my admiration for The Spirit of Gambo's Jenkins quartet albums, but I look forward to future releases from this newly rededicated ensemble.23 January 2015
In August, when discussing Alla Francesca's previous album devoted to troubadours, I openly wondered where future productions would turn for repertory. Already we have an answer from Alla Francesca themselves in their album devoted to Sephardic-trouvère connections: Trouvère melodies & interpretive techniques are used with Jewish texts (whether in Hebrew, or only thematically). This album was actually prompted by non-medievalist forces documenting Jews in France, and so I'm sure that project was happy to be able to access Alla Francesca's expertise. Juifs et Trouvères is an enjoyable album, although as the forgoing suggests, I'm not sure how significant it is from a musical perspective. It makes for more of a speculative accompaniment to other projects, and perhaps demands a multimedia presentation.15 January 2015
Longtime readers will know that wide-ranging programs are usually not my favorites, but I thought I should make a note of Argentum et aurum by Ensemble Leones. (Of course, this ensemble has also released other recent programs, in particular centering on instrumental music of the great Franco-Flemish composers, that have very much appealed.) In this case, the impetus was a research study on the music being performed in the vicinity of Vienna during the early Habsburg period. The notable aspect is the fine interpretive job that Leones do with such a broad range of repertory, both chronologically & stylistically: Very vivid, with contrasts. The album will probably appeal to a wider audience with its variety.5 January 2015
I had previously noted anticipation for Graindelavoix's third & final release in their series around Villard de Honnecourt, Motets. This is the only album in the trilogy that focuses on polyphony, so that makes it of more general interest to me, and indeed the Ars Antiqua motet can be especially fascinating. Motets comes from the same recording sessions, summer of 2010, as the other albums in the Villard series, and so it seems natural to wonder what Graindelavoix is doing now. (Their most recently recorded album is actually Cesena from 2011.) Are they even still active?
In any case, Motets continues the emphasis on "repertory in motion" — i.e., these aren't the most exceptional works, or even especially original for the time, but they do represent the way the broader repertory was articulated at a particular time & place. As such, the program illustrates more of the "in progress" potential of the Ars Antiqua motet than it does any point of arrival or consummation. (Already we had Clemencic demonstrating the layers of creation in the motet repertory, although his program uses a masterpiece for each illustration.) In that sense, its value as an album becomes exemplary of something beyond itself: The situation is not unlike my attempt to list favorite albums for improvisatory music, where the condition of listening to the album multiple times is radically different from the condition of its production. My "snapshot" of favorite improvisatory albums is thus immediately a distortion. We can say the same about medieval music albums, especially of the Ars Antiqua, since the day to day affair of music was of a totally different character from the formation of a canonical repertory, set in stone not only in a recorded performance, but in writing. It's difficult to keep in mind the exceptional character of almost every medieval album in this regard, not only the unusual character of music being written & surviving, but the unusual character that usually motivates a selection for recording: The vast majority of music surviving from the era is plainchant, after all. In keeping with its emphasis on Villard, it's easy to describe Motets, correspondingly, as an audio sketchbook. As such, its achievement is more in the associated process, and in turn in the sort of thoughts I'm articulating here, than it is in the "final" audio result itself. For one thing, most of these are simple 2-voice sketches, sometimes filled in (in the performance) with other versions from more prominent sources. So the program doesn't fit well into a "favorites" model in the sense I've typically used, i.e. about the music on the album, although as I hope this discussion shows, I find the resulting contextualization of & by this album to be quite interesting & worthwhile.
The conception & notes for Motets are a real tour-de-force of Deleuzian theory: We find not only the "nomadic," articulated both in the person of Villard and in the way musical materials themselves were passed around, but also machinic logic. Indeed, the notes present such a cogent argument for viewing Ars Antiqua motets as machinic assemblages that it's difficult to view them as anything but canonic in this regard. (I find it rather satisfying that such assemblages should come through so clearly in an arena far removed from what Deleuze & Guattari seem to have ever considered.) For one thing, the motets threaded together the sacred & secular in their different voices, operating in different time scales, suturing domains that were considered inherently unreconcilable. This "suture" is necessarily of a fluid character, linked closely to passing affective response. The album thus emphasizes the practical (as with Villard) and non-scholastic character of this music. Speaking for myself, I have long felt resentment toward any discussion that presents this music as of only theoretical interest, not for practical purposes, etc. I didn't necessarily know how to articulate my resistance to this idea, other than to say that I was quite certain I was enjoying the music as music, but here we do have an articulation according to the machinic linkages between the different layers: Different domains can continue in their own way, but they do interact if not intersect, and these kinds of interactions eventually lead to what we would later call motivic logic. (The notes also consider the motets as proto-cinematic machines, given their exploration of time scales, as well as becoming-minor in their incorporation of language. The latter, again, seems like a perfect example, yet presumably not one for the original authors.) The machinic linkages are practical in the sense that they do, in fact, assemble different modes of thought. This is a step, then, in schematizing linkages between different modes, as many different versions of similar material are worked out in affective practice. (It must be emphasized that these pieces explore the way the mind works in many ways. I should also note that, having presented this work as "a step," being locked into a more rigid conception was not already implied, but merely a retrospective assessment.) The conception of the world that emerges in the motet-machine is very different from that of the modern era, and certainly different again from what the modern era has projected onto the medieval era. However, particularly taking up the latter thread (in a kind of unraveling), the schemes here & their assemblage via proto-motif challenge our conception of the creation of modern thought itself. For one, these motets are basically open systems: It's with the modern, i.e. tonality, that we encounter a closed system reterritorialized via inscription in the tonic-dominant space: That world is dictated via container instead of being explored via (multiply) internal motion. (And it's probably worth noting specifically that modernity foreclosed according to transcendental logic, leaving practice as a messy residue. Politically, modernity then levels this very claim against the medieval world.) The notes do not discuss the origins of the instrumental pieces, but they are basically fantasies on some of the secular melodies, dance as another thread of machinic assemblage. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what Schmelzer & Co. went on to explore further in Cesena; we just had to wait a few years to read/hear this intervening step, the step that places the logic itself in sharp relief. So what now?5 December 2014
I appreciate that Michel Sanvoisin continues to record previously unrecorded La Rue pieces, particularly masses. (I don't necessarily appreciate that it's particularly masses, but that's what he's particularly recording.) His latest album features the Missa Tous les regretz, certainly overdue for a recording. (The Nunca fué pena mayor is also worth hearing as one of La Rue's more distinctive early large-scale works.) The interpretation does show enough to make it clear that the Missa Tous les regretz is indeed one of La Rue's major masterpieces of 4-voice motivic style, but the overall result, including the recorded sound, is just so uneven that it's difficult to recommend for anyone but the specialist. There's something to be said for getting this music onto record, though, so thanks to Sanvoisin for that, and I hope the effort will bring more attention to La Rue's discography.2 December 2014
I want to acknowledge the final Hilliard Ensemble album here, perhaps as a concession to nostalgia. (I think one could argue that I typically take a rather non-nostalgic approach to this music, at least considering it is by nature historical. Perhaps I delude myself with that remark.) The material, English carols & motets of the mid-15th century, is not of high interest to me, but it is material the ensemble selected as their favorite. I think back to their old recordings of Dufay, La Rue, Josquin, Dunstable, Perotin, and especially Ockeghem. These had a large effect on me in the circa 1990 time frame. Who knows if I would be writing on these topics today if not for the Hilliard Ensemble. What they brought to this music is obvious enough: A sense of vocal ensemble virtuosity, driven by the singers themselves. Whereas the actual sonic result might be rather different, there can be no doubt that a sense of vocal ensemble virtuosity marked the original creation of this music. That's the ensemble's biggest legacy, beyond the performances & recordings themselves. That they continued to be a productive group for around 35 years is also amazing (and that they could announce a "retirement" in an album is also the exception).27 November 2014
To exhaust my backlog for the moment (while a couple of other potentially intriguing items already appear on the horizon), I turn to music only a few decades older, but in some ways, seemingly of a different world, Dufay's masses of 1453. This is the sixth recording devoted to Dufay by the Cantica Symphonia ensemble, dating back fifteen years. Consequently, although their style incorporating instruments — reflecting Italian practice, as they are an Italian ensemble — is not to the taste of some scholars & audience, it has had a lengthy period to be developed & refined. Indeed, this is their third recording devoted to Dufay's mass music, and the most clear & accomplished to date. It was consequently added to my personal list, where I make some other remarks. This is highly significant music, both from a historical perspective & in turns of "pure" enjoyment (a nonsense concept, ultimately, it must be admitted), and here it receives a very lucid & convincing interpretation. Although someone might prefer a different type of ensemble performing it, it's difficult for me to imagine a reading that uncovers anything more in these rather well-worn masses. In fact, the Binchois Consort recording of the Missa Se la face ay pale, released in 2009, already illustrated that mass rather well. (And it was their own fifth recording devoted to Dufay, and possibly their last?) The present recording doesn't really reveal new details, but it is more forceful, and has the benefit of pairing the Missa L'homme armé, a work that has had a large number of recorded interpretations, none of which I had found all that compelling. So the latter is the main impetus for my preference here. The year 1453, just before the fall of Constantinople, and resulting consummation of the epochal shift in trade routes that had already begun, will always appear as something of a historical apex for Western Europe. Here we have its most celebrated music: Readers from other cultures might want to have a listen.24 November 2014
Apparently I should have paid a lot more attention to the Huelgas Ensemble recording of Pipelare back in the 90s, considering that the recent Sound and the Fury recording is among the most striking "new" programs I've heard from the era in a while. (Whether the previous program fitting that description is their La Rue or their Caron depends on what "new" means. The La Rue program amazed me, but in some sense I expected it. Of course, making this comparison only underscores how much The Sound and the Fury has done for c.1500 sacred music over the past several years. They are in a league of their own when it comes to introducing previously neglected material.) In fairness to me, not that I deserve any slack, I was not terribly taken with the Huelgas Agricola recording from a few years later, and never have been that taken with Brumel, whose contemporary fame they inaugurated with their Earthquake mass recording at the beginning of the 90s — this marking their main entry into the repertory. The style was & remains kind of muddy, and some of their programs relied on extracts. Moreover, I noted the similarity between Pipelare & La Rue immediately, but at that time, La Rue's discography was a mess (as was c.1500 music in general, with so many problems of ficta & rhythm), and it was difficult to discern Pipelare's relative status — I took him to be a lesser figure with a similar style. I was mistaken on that point, as the new recording amply demonstrates, and the fact that I feel a need to revisit this history of almost twenty years ago underscores just how mistaken I was. (There is also a recording from 1940 on 78rpm, making the current release the third with Pipelare in its title.) I even created a Pipelare discography here at the FAQ, a mere two weeks after stating I wouldn't be adding new resources (a statement I still maintain in principle; I don't mind being contradictory), partly to attempt to correct my error.
In making some adjustments to my activity here, I have yet to fully articulate for myself the distinction between comments on this page and those at my personal list, where this Pipelare set has been added. That page does make a few remarks that I will not try to repeat here. Consequently, beyond those remarks, I'm not sure what else to say here, other than noting the history above. Pipelare's style is quite distinctive & compelling, and his apparent eschewal of prominent positions — he left the only one he had rather quickly for unknown reasons — is perhaps a sign of the changing times. World conquest was underway, the Reformation was brewing, and musical style would soon be standardized over the same period that saw increased oppression not only applied to some unfortunate world cultures, but at home in Europe as well. Soon would come the age of famines & the second serfdom, and freely styled creative music such as Pipelare's would be forgotten, or at least removed from the highest circles of power. It's this shift that marks the end of an era, musically, and why I & others persist in calling it the Golden Age. By way of appendix to that point, perhaps it's worth noting the very different provenances of composers such as Agricola, La Rue, and Pipelare: The latter evidently emerged from the piper's guild to receive a theoretical education. Talent could emerge unexpectedly, and unconnected with consolidating power, an observation I'll simply leave dangling.23 November 2014
I have begun to lament the relative lack of attention to the Franco-Flemish motet repertory recently, as my frequent calls for recordings of the secular music have started to be heard, apparently. (More could certainly be done.) On the sacred side, although the mass repertory, as the "symphony" of the period, is well worthwhile, and recent recordings, particularly by e.g. The Sound and the Fury, have illuminated & clarified a great deal in this area, it's worth remembering that the motets have been considered at least as important, both at the time & earlier in twentieth century scholarship, with a preference toward mass or motet attributed on the basis of individual composer. For one thing, masses are almost "instrumental" in impetus with their predesignated (pro forma) texts, whereas motets allow for more selection, or even composition of text (as in the chanson). For example, Gustav Reese considered Josquin's motets to be his most distinctive compositions, in large part because of his handling of texts. (And here I don't mean "word painting" in the sense of using the text to mediate musical decoration within a standard modal or tonal scheme, but rather conceive the form itself relative to the text.)
So at this point, we really need more motet recordings from the Golden Age, and The Spy's Choirbook, a double album by Alamire (the ensemble), is a start. This is a rather interesting historical program, derived from an ornate manuscript that Alamire (the scribe) sent to Henry VIII in 1516/7, a collection of motets from some of the leading composers of the period (all anonymous in the manuscript). The interpretation uses a rather large vocal ensemble, sometimes including instruments as well. Consequently, although there is a good overall formal sense for this music, i.e. cadences & tonal relations are articulated clearly with their large-scale structural relations, smaller-scale interactions & motivic development are often obscured. (The handful of all-instrumental performances are actually some of the most compelling in the set, often bringing out more motivic & passing details.) This is more of an issue for some of the motets in the program than others, but personally, I most enjoy the music that has a lot of detailed small-scale interaction to go along with interesting formal progressions. The two opening, paired (stately) pieces are topical, related to conceiving an heir, and although the topicality sets the program, the pieces themselves are rather stiff from a musical perspective. That doesn't set great expectations for the program, but there are highlights: The La Rue & Josquin (possibly including the very striking Tota pulchra es) motets are appealing, for instance, although they immediately call for more detail. (The series on Dulces exuviae is another highlight for those who like to compare.) Regardless, this is easily the most substantial program of motets from the period to appear in quite some time. It's thus well worth hearing.19 November 2014
I have a series of Franco-Flemish polyphony recordings to discuss, as "release" season seems to be fully underway. This time of year is usually the most active, and once again we are seeing a strong batch of releases. It's good to see there's still life out there when it comes to recording this repertory. I don't take it for granted at this point. I've been slow to write these discussions, preoccupied with other happenings, and I'm not sure how long it will take me to treat the whole batch, but I'll get to it — or at least the part where I have something to say.
Anyway, let me start with perhaps the easiest to discuss: The Brabant Ensemble released a Brumel album. Not coincidentally, this is some of the earliest music they have recorded, if not the earliest, at least judging (quickly) by titles. Brumel, among composers of this period, has generally appealed to listeners (and musicians) who are mostly interested in later music. Stephen Rice's liner notes oblige that orientation, with their frequent implication that this music, being prior to the Council of Trent, is particularly early. Among the major composers of his generation, of course Brumel is known for an emphasis on homophony & rhythm: The same rhythmic figures might repeat in different places in the texture, for instance, perhaps insistently, rather than participate in motivic development. There is imitative writing here, but a lot of "light" chordal writing too, which Rice aptly describes as Italianate. The music can remain relatively close in tone to the plainchant on which it is based, but decorated with harmonies (in a sense, not so unlike hymns of several decades earlier). So that probably summarizes pretty well both why Brumel is popular with some listeners, and relatively unpopular with me (although, as should be obvious, I am listening & writing still). The performance is well-conceived, with a shameless exuberance singing out Brumel's rhythmic figures. It works well, and this ensemble's experience (even if it's mainly with music a few decades later) shows. They clearly interpret & show what makes Brumel Brumel.
Chronology tends not to be very clear for this music, and so when Franco-Flemish pieces (such as mass cycles) from the Golden Age show similarities, it's difficult to know who influenced whom (or indeed if a lost example is involved). So whereas Marbrianus de Orto seems to have been a close contemporary of Brumel, and some of their approach to counterpoint (when Brumel engages in it) sounds similar, it is challenging to order the masses on The Sound and the Fury's De Orto album relative to Brumel's work recorded above. I might suggest the L'homme armé mass was earlier, and the Mi-Mi more contemporaneous. In any case, relative to Brumel is only one aspect of chronology to mention: The De Orto album was actually recorded a month prior to The Sound and the Fury's Ockeghem Mi-Mi album, inverting what is certainly the original order (and perhaps adding some insight to the Ockeghem interpretation). This is also a download-only album, a trend I do not welcome. (A friend helped me hear it, since I don't want proprietary software on my computer.) De Orto's discography was a relatively late addition to the FAQ (prompted by the Cut Circle album, making the current release the second to put De Orto in its title), but this album confirms he belongs, at least among the second tier of his contemporaries, even if for the purpose of discussing influence & chronology. One significant choice for the interpretation of the L'homme armé mass was breaking long (perhaps instrumentally conceived) lines into vocal syllables fitting more with the surrounding texture. Although the Mi-Mi setting uses a variety of plainchant, it does not follow Ockeghem's modal implications, and ends up having some of the same improvisatory feel as the L'homme armé. (One might compare to Agricola, although the two have very different styles.) This is someone with a lot of fluid ideas. Between its age and the download-only factor, I am probably prejudiced against this album, so it hasn't been enough to convince me to add De Orto to my "favorites" list. Ultimately, I guess the music needed to blow me away, and it doesn't: There's nothing I can really put my finger on that sets it apart. It's well worth (maybe I shouldn't say that, given the specific circumstances, but in the abstract) hearing, though, and helps paint more of the total picture for this repertory.12 November 2014
I will now be keeping at least a year of remarks on this page. (This will be violated at first, because I will need to build a year of remarks, starting from October 2014, when this change was made.) This will allow readers to construct their own year-end summaries of recordings in this category, if they so desire.
Because of changes in the recording business, and taking a more flexible approach personally, the timeliness of remarks will not be as much of a priority as in the past. So items might be discussed somewhat later than they appear, and the "year" in releases will be compromised.
(I will dispense with the other self-serving remarks that used to occupy this space, and keep it brief.)
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