Remarks on Recent CDs

Opinions on the merits of recently issued CDs have been in demand here at the FAQ. Generally speaking, we try to concentrate on factually-based information. However, I am now doing the present editorializing. I will be writing some remarks every month on recordings which inspire me to make remarks.

These are brief remarks, not real reviews. The remarks may assume that the reader is familiar with various other items, or even the recording in question. I urge you to always look at "FAQ references" links in the referenced files, as well as the CD files themselves. For more comments on what a "review" means to me, as well as links to some other opinions, see the bottom of this page.

Comments are updated at the end of each month, and appear in months during which the CDs actually make their way to me, allowing a few days at the end of the month to prepare the comments. I do not delay in requesting new releases of interest, but the vagaries of shipment from Europe can mean that items arrive here in later months. I do not consider CDs to be "new" if I did not attempt to hear them when they first appeared.


August

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

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


July

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


June

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


May

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


April

It surprised me that the popular Anonymous 4 ensemble returned to the Montpellier Codex for another album, this one released twenty years after their first. Although I cannot say that I've been a fan of Anonymous 4 — their most successful interpretations, in my opinion, have been in plainchant or similar material — I did feel a need to hear their second Montpellier Codex album. I cannot really say that anything about it is surprising, but I'm going ahead and noting it in this space.


March

Once again, I have nothing to report. Hopefully some 2014 activity will start to be reflected in this space soon. In the meantime, I thought I'd mention that I'm feeling like I have a new clarity in hearing the Dufay motets (as well as related mid-fifteenth century repertory, such as the Regis motets). I don't believe we yet have a great recording of this material, so maybe now is the time to do so. This music can be quite punchy & communicative with the right touch. And a better articulation of the late isorhythmic style will, in turn, lead to better command of the transitional styles following it. We're already long past viewing the 1460s & 70s as an "earlier version of Josquin."


Discussion

I intend to keep 4 to 6 months' worth of comments on this page, depending on the length of the individual entries. Once the comments expire, they are gone forever, and rightly so.

My opinion of "reviews" is as such: It takes a good deal of work to write a proper review. Simply paraphrasing the liner notes and adding something to the effect of "It sounds cool to me; check it out!" or "It doesn't seem like the performance from which I learned the work" does not do the job justice. Any time someone is asked to churn through a long list of recordings to regularly write reviews, there is almost no chance that the reviews will be fully informed. The only chance is if the reviewer is intimately familiar with the music in question, the requisite interpretive decisions, and the intentions of the performer. This can only be true rarely, even for a scholar. We do not attempt to write regular reviews for the FAQ, nor do we call them that. Beyond not wanting to inject more opinion than necessary into our information, this is an admission of our own failings, and frankly, many reviewers should admit the same instead of pretending to write reviews about something with which they have little familiarity (that this happens frequently is patently obvious).

I sometimes write reviews, but I am not attempting to write any here. Hopefully the editorializing I am doing will, however, be interesting. I usually restrict FAQ comments to be positive only, but here I will give some negative comments too, if that is the notable thing about a release. As for what silence says? I leave it to you to infer.

To more of Todd McComb's personal opinions:

See also: discussion of "progress" in interpreting this music, or links to other recordings lists.


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Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>