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.


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."


February

There is nothing to report this month. (My apologies for forgetting to post this for a week.)


January

As I prepare the 2013 writeup, I have another recording from last year to mention here: Maurice Bourbon & Ensemble Métamorphoses have come out with another Josquin album, this one featuring the well-worn Missa Hercules, Dux Ferrariae. Much to my surprise, this album was also subtitled Volume 5 of their new Josquin series (that is, there were some albums from the 20th century they aren't counting), leaving three of which I was completely unaware. (My attempt to hear any of those three have thus far been unsuccessful, and finding them does not appear promising.) In any case, returning to the present item, the famous mass is given a quality & worthwhile reading. The other half of the album is a mass cycle written by Bourbon himself, using some of Josquin's themes & other techniques of the time. Part of this mass sounds very different to me, but other parts, and probably overall, sound as though it could have originated in that time period. Although this particular recording did not make a huge impression, it does sustain my interest in Bourbon's Josquin cycle, and I hope his recordings will be more available at some point.


December

After openly wondering for so long why there was no recent recording devoted to Josquin's songs, a new album by Ensemble Music Nova has appeared, featuring the 5- & 6-part songs from a Susato publication. This pairs nicely with the Ensemble Leones recording from 2011 that features the instrumental music. It's also fortunate to have an ensemble that works largely with earlier repertory, giving an opportunity to interpret this music as relatively late in style, rather than the earliest repertory it might be for some other group. The performance is quite compelling in that way, and also features an uncommon attention to the poetic forms & articulation. That said, I'm not sure why they decided to include some later organ tracks, and that isn't explained in the booklet. They are pleasant enough, however, as are the homage tracks. This item was added to my personal list. Even with this program, and the earlier instrumental-focused program, it seems that the heart of Josquin's chanson output still does not possess a recent interpretation. Part of the issue would appear to be questions of attribution, which the present release largely ignores, and perhaps that is the correct approach at the moment. Altogether, I'm very pleased to have this new recording, but there is a lot more out there in this area.

Hyperion has released the second volume of conductus settings by John Potter et al. (With the first volume, it wasn't clear to me what the series was, since they also feature the title "Music & Poetry from Thirteenth Century France," a rather broad category. However, at this point it appears clear that the volumes refer to a series specifically on the conductus.) This music & interpretation continues to be intriguing, and the series is now said to be exactly three volumes. There's an argument to be made for greeting these recordings more enthusiastically than I've done so far: They're a largely unprecedented look at the lyric forms buried under the "conductus" heading, and treat the individual differences between the songs with great seriousness. I see a lot of influence on future interpretations here, beyond specifically the conductus. The music itself comes off as so experimental... perhaps that is the right word... that I find myself listening more with curiosity than enjoyment per se. So it falls into a different category in that sense, but I also want to emphasize how strikingly original this project is. Perhaps I'll decide how to better highlight it when the full trilogy is done.


November

Ensemble Graindelavoix continues to challenge popular conceptions of medieval & Renaissance music, and particularly how it is presented. The modern concert format, or the post-Romantic approach to creators & genius, are certainly not integral to an appreciation of medieval music, historically speaking, and might well be a detriment to understanding. Their newest album, Confréries, consisting of trouvère songs, and the second of a trilogy oriented around a thirteenth century cathedral builder, continues striving to create new conceptual perspectives. It explores the way people came together, and the way they gathered material together, both from the perspective of the cathedral as an architectural space, and the way individual works were gathered out of constituent elements — the latter applies both to the physical builder, Villard de Honnecourt, and the trouvère whose cycle forms the center of the program, Jaikes de Cambrai. In both cases, the originality of the components of their works can be questioned, but the compilations themselves present a fresh perspective oriented to a specific time & place. (Jaikes' music can be compared to that of Gautier de Coincy in this regard, in the way it borrows & in the way it forms a cycle.) Perhaps more to the point, Graindelavoix also offers a fine interpretation of these trouvère songs, a repertory which has been some of the most lively for new approaches in recent years. This recording was added to my personal list. The general approach here, with its emphasis on lateral connections and gathering together, makes me especially intrigued by the announced third volume, devoted to motets, a genre explicitly devoted to presenting divergent material in a single form.

Pierre Hamon has now recorded three albums oriented or devoted to Machaut, and featuring the young singer Marc Mauillon, with the third easily being the most impressive yet: Mon chant vous envoy. While it doesn't explore the continuity of monophonic form, as in the 2006 release, or focus on a specific book like the Remède de Fortune of the 2009 release, the more freely chosen program is a strength here. Also, the experience & attention to detail from the ensemble, which continues to be augmented, moves ever higher. (Coincidentally, I discussed an English virginal album by Catalina Vicens recently in this space, and she appears here on the organetto.) As noted in the discussion for my personal list, besides the fine individual sonorities and attention to phrasing & diction, the way the sonorities of the ensemble fit together is especially striking. This would appear to be inspired by Indian & Middle Eastern drones, but adapted to a setting with more than one voice at different pitches (i.e. polyphony). The result can be impressive.


October

It was amazing to me to look back to see that Dreams in the Pleasure Garden was recorded 16 years ago. Time flies, but the Orlando Consort is back with a new Machaut album, this one apparently initiating a series of Machaut recordings for Hyperion in the wake of the new Machaut Edition to come out on University of Michigan Press. A new Machaut Edition has been a long time in coming, and so is very welcome. I don't have any special information about the Edition, but it does appear that Machaut interpretations are settling into familiar areas, depending on whether one includes instruments, etc. Although there are some different (and improved) details here, the Orlando Consort approach is very recognizable as basically the same as it was in 1997. Besides improving on some technical details of structure here, and general command of the lyrical style, I had always been somewhat ambivalent regarding the "hazy" quality of their earlier album — presumably to reflect the Dreamy title? In any case, thankfully that approach to the recording itself, featuring a lot of echoes that saturate the overtone space, has been replaced by something with a greater clarity. The desire to record medieval secular lyrics in churches appears to continue unabated, however, for unknown reasons. So although, in some ways, I prefer the earlier selection of music (and the program was certainly longer), the new Orlando Consort album has replaced the old one on my personal list. It will probably seem either more or less significant in time, depending on if this becomes a substantial series of Machaut albums, or if (or how) the new Edition inspires other ensembles.


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>