Remarks on Recent Recordings

This page concerns the "Early Music" portion of the site. (Although I do not remember specifically myself, if I trust what I see online, it appears that this feature began in April 2000, then in a monthly digest format.)

As of October 2014, I will be making comments here on an intermittent, not on a strictly monthly basis. Accordingly, entries will be dated more precisely than by their month.

As always, comments here are what I choose to note about a release, and do not follow a strict format. Only recordings about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say will be mentioned in this space.

Comments are in reverse chronological order, i.e. newest first.

Todd M. McComb

Although they've mostly focused on later music, and their interpretive style still owes quite a bit to the even later English Cathedral repertory (with its large, stratified ensembles), I was very appreciative of the Brabant Ensemble's La Rue disc, and especially its Missa Inviolata, which has become one of my favorite La Rue cycles. So of course I was going to listen to their Obrecht disc, which involves music from a couple of decades earlier still. (I'll also note that a recording like this, i.e. a late December release, would have made me crazy back in the days of doing year end reviews. I'm glad that's no longer an issue.) The major work on the program is the Missa Grecorum, presumably part of Obrecht's mature & characteristic outpouring of mass cycles c.1490, but it includes other premieres as well. The tune behind the Missa Grecorum is unidentified, but possibly has a connection to the Eastern Church via Vatican ceremonies. Unlike the more rhetorical Missa Inviolata, though, I don't hear the Missa Grecorum as a major "new" work: I'm not sure that it improves my appreciation for Obrecht at all, in fact, although it's an enjoyable piece of music. The (also premiered here) motet on St. Basil is more intriguing in this regard, but the performance starts to weigh on my appreciation: Although the feeling of "rhythmic shear" from e.g. the opening homophony of the mass is striking, the ensemble often seems to be playing catch up, i.e. to lack rhythmic vigor, even becoming mechanical & ponderous at times. It doesn't seem that Brabant's typical mid-16th century orientation fits Obrecht's music very well, since it requires rhythmic precision together with an ecstatic quality. The vocal blend likewise seems more out of joint here than on their La Rue (which deploys more explicit alternation anyway), with high voices sometimes sticking oddly out of an otherwise muddy texture. The opening Salve regina seems so foggy & stagnant... although the mass interpretation that follows has some appealing sections. (I'm not happy with the proliferation of track markers either, since as noted elsewhere, that makes it more difficult to program e.g. a single mass. Perhaps I should have complained more when A:N:S Chorus started doing this, but then, their recordings were truly new & exciting....) Nonetheless, this is the most ambitious Obrecht program in a while, and so worth hearing. Actually, it's unclear to me if there's anything exciting left to discover in Obrecht's masses (which remain his most important works). I wouldn't bet against it, though.

22 January 2018

Although it's later music than I most often mention here, I wanted to make a few remarks about the new album by Graindelavoix featuring Cypriano de Rore, Portrait of the Artist as a Starved Dog. First of all, Björn Schmelzer discusses the title in relation to both actual portraits of De Rore & an image by Dürer (with the "actual" starved dog), as well as in relation to notions of "divine" artistry applied (not for the first time) in the sixteenth century, e.g. especially to Michelangelo. The program focuses on Rore's madrigals, but also includes secular motets, a hybrid genre of the period with similar themes & expressivity, and divides his output into three phases. They also approach the singing without diminutions, and so despite some instrumental accompaniment, produce a rather austere reading: Yet this is precisely a reading that illuminates Rore's previously unprecedented emotional range. I've generally found Schmelzer's interpretations to be thought provoking, and as the forgoing remarks suggest, this is no exception. It's also not unusual for me to be drawn more to interpretations of later music by musicians who have mostly worked with earlier music — rather than the other way around — and Graindelavoix bring a firm fifteenth century (& even Ars Antiqua) footing to this mid-sixteenth century repertory. From the perspective of a medievalist this music is indeed late, but from a perspective critiquing Western global imperialism (the world-defining activity of the historical "modern era" per se), it's early: One can note the (relatively novel, then, to become more common with Monteverdi et al.) turn to imperial (Greek & Roman) antiquity for themes & inspiration, and one can ponder the emotionality (differing from the relatively staid previous couple of generations) in response to world conquest. Rore was writing a couple of generations after the epochal change announced by Columbus' voyage — barely longer than we are now from the end of the modern era (by my rough periodization, as e.g. articulated elsewhere) — and so one can further note the uncertainty, the tragedy, the interrogation of hubris & anguished human feeling deriving from the antique thematic material. Such an orientation is in sharp contrast to the feelings of mastery that would be consolidated with the so-called "enlightenment," i.e. the era of the subsequent "classical period" in musical terms, and is moreover prior to the regularization of rhythm e.g. via bar lines (definitively with Corelli), not to mention the (anti-polyphonic) hierarchical rigidity of recitative-continuo style. One can in turn note the impetus toward elitism deriving from these neo-imperial concerns, not only the far-flung dramatic material (that would soon manifest even more spectacularly in the "opera" genre, particularly as it came to emphasize the soloist), but the separation of "the composer" from humanity more generally — as implicitly traced by Schmelzer's discussion of divinity. (And indeed the rise of portraiture per se in this period marks a rethinking of the subject in modern terms.) In other words, this music retains the feel of a newly globalized class structure becoming intensified & yet still distended — much as now: This is music of extremes (articulated quite persuasively by Schmelzer & his group), with nothing cute or quaint. It traces a human tragedy that the "divine" De Rore was still able to feel directly — if articulate indirectly. (There is nothing of the smug perfection of e.g. Mozart here, although one might also contrast the systemization of musical affect by e.g. Marini, writing only fifty years after Rore.) This is dangerous music, without a (conceptual) net, and so some of the most dynamic to witness & grapple with the early modern (epochal) transition.

9 January 2018

With their fourth album — nearly two hours of four masses by Noel Bauldeweyn — Beauty Farm heads off into unknown repertory, after largely mimicking The Sound and the Fury with two Gombert albums followed by an Ockeghem album. (The latter was also released this year, so they're increasing their pace too.) They also seem to have confirmed an emphasis on mass cycles once again, an emphasis that doesn't necessarily thrill me, given the ample repertory that is correspondingly (& badly) neglected, but I do understand: Not only are these mass cycles impressive monuments, but emphasizing a single genre has allowed these (related) ensembles to focus on counterpoint & personality, and (technical) details in general, without worrying so much about different genres & texts. So it makes sense, but hopefully soon e.g. some other motet albums will appear. The previous album — and perhaps The Sound and the Fury's last? — where the repertory per se made such an impression on me (as opposed to the interpretation of relatively known repertory) was the Pipelare double album, and in that case, I had every reason to rue not having paid more attention to Pipelare previously: There were previous albums devoted to his music, although none had managed to make a big impression on me. (That changed significantly, given the sheer originality, scope & quality involved in the tantalizing selection of four complete masses.) In the case of Bauldeweyn (ever Baldwin?), however, there had been almost nothing to hear, making him quite obscure today, and so in that sense, his music is even more of a revelation. Like Pipelare, Bauldeweyn (who was apparently younger, but didn't live as long, although all of this is sketchy) was apparently a contemporary of La Rue, with his most important works also documented by the Alamire scriptorium. In that case, he's also a direct contemporary of Josquin (again maybe not by age, but by years of peak activity), and whereas the notes suggest that Bauldeweyn is something of a bridge between Obrecht & Gombert — a perfectly good suggestion, although I don't really hear much Obrecht, personally — his music also shows some of the same rhetorical or discursive skill & focus. The previous comparison is related to the general density of Bauldeweyn's writing (at least here), which doesn't show the same predilection for rests or reduced forces as Josquin, but the textual orientation nonetheless suggests similar concerns. (One might think e.g. of a less motivically insistent version of the Josquin of Missa Malheur me bat et al. — otherwise the most Obrechtian Josquin, I suppose.) The resulting style is distinctive, and so Bauldeweyn must enter conversations regarding the greatest polyphonists of the greatest age of Western polyphony — and the album is duly added to my personal list. Beyond Pipelare, whose style shows even more vitality & variety, La Rue's Missa Incessament — one of his masterpieces, and one that would benefit from an updated interpretation — comes to mind by way of comparison for Bauldeweyn's opening Missa En douleur en tristesse, perhaps the biggest highlight. Impressive. So who or what does Beauty Farm have in store to reveal next?

7 November 2017

I should also note William Kempster's most recent La Rue mass premiere — on a compilation album of mostly 20th century (& some 21st?) choral music by a student ensemble. Although not as crucially placed in La Rue's oeuvre as the Missa Pourquoy non? of Kempster's previous student choral album, the Missa de Sancto Antonio of this latest release is nonetheless highly appealing, with an enticing combination of sonic beauty & technical intrigue. It's a relatively easy mass to appreciate.

29 October 2017

Although it was some of the first repertory from the c.1600 period that I really enjoyed, I've yet to hear an amazing performance of Gibbons' consort music for viols, so I decided to give the recent L'Achéron disc a listen. There's a nice tone... a certain delicacy one might say... that could also be characterized as being tentative. The recording requires active listening to engage, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but still lacks punch or impact. It probably seems like a particular letdown after Phantasm's recent Tye album, so I'm sorry if I'm being unfair to this (new to me) ensemble. I'll still dream of that perfect Gibbons album, though.

16 October 2017

I welcomed a new recording devoted to Tye's consort music by The Spirit of Gambo in 2014 (which still seems very recent), as performance practice does continue to develop & become more idiomatic & sophisticated. Whereas I was excited for a change then, that wasn't necessarily the case with the even newer recording by Phantasm. The latter does include all of Tye's consort output, and doesn't employ a vocalist (which Spirit of Gambo did on only a couple of tracks), though, so in that sense, it's a more canonical program — the same 31 tracks as the classic (& dated) Savall program. I still thought, however, that this would be one of those situations where I'm slowly deciding between two excellent interpretations: That sort of thing is basically a limit case for the project here, which was devised around music for which performance practice was rapidly developing, and so for which better interpretations were always (sometimes very easily) imaginable. (Although one wouldn't say exactly the same of the contemporary improvisation that has been more of my focus the past few years, obviously, those are still "exploratory" performances, and so similar in a sense.) I haven't been feeling very engaged when I've spent time lately trying to distinguish & rank very similar, both more than adequate, performances then.... Anyway, although I've appreciated Spirt of Gambo, that didn't turn out to be the situation here at all: The Phantasm album is fantastic, and an easy choice. (On another tangent, I'm still trying to figure out which of two excellent recordings of Feldman's Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello I prefer. Kind of a silly task, as noted....) They bring such a command of the music, and project a strong sense of individuality for each piece. I should probably pause to note what a wonder it is to have this music performed so confidently & idiomatically — it certainly wasn't always this way. There's another question, though, and it's why Tye? Why does this seemingly obscure composer, someone whose vocal music has never stood out to me, occupy such a place in the history of instrumental ensemble music? Laurence Dreyfus discusses this topic in his notes, and not uninterestingly, but conclusions are scarce. Whereas Dreyfus talks about the Protestant-Catholic conflict that simmered in England throughout the period (becoming the Royalist-Puritan conflict soon enough, animated by the latter group's fear of art), it's also worth noting that Henry VIII had seized the monasteries as well, and had turned their members — craftsmen, artists, etc. — out into public space. So although Dreyfus notes Tye's Protestant "connections," the intellectual eruption of later 16th century England should be viewed in this context. It's undoubtedly why I hear some of the last flowering of the medieval artistic mindset in this music, and continue to feature it, despite its relatively late date. (I should also note that Henry's mindset regarding English monasteries was appropriation, i.e. absorbing their talents into a secular economy, but his mindset regarding Irish monasteries was soon to be suppression.) It's a strange intersection. What of the music then? Well, much of it is basically an unordered set of variations illustrating a wide variety of idiosyncratic contrapuntal treatments. The appeal (for me anyway) is not really in what it might have modeled for the future, since after all, (imperial) music of the 17th & 18th centuries is generally not my thing, but in the projection of earlier polyphonic ideas onto the "blank slate" of the instrumental medium (i.e. without a text). Note further, for instance, that this is not treble-dominated music, as was already appearing on the Continent. What does this mean? Physically, singers of high vocal parts were young (or possibly women) — or else (not so young?) men singing in other registers, i.e. less "naturally" — and for similar reasons, players of the smaller string consort instruments tended to be smaller people. So... it's not as though women & children were suddenly more respected when virtuosic high vocal (& other) parts became fashionable: Usually the opposite in the early modern period, at least in general... such that such a shift can be viewed as another appropriation. Well, let me leave things there, and refer the reader to Lawrence's excellent technical discussion of the music (which leaves these points entirely aside). And yes, his new Tye album was added to my personal list.

3 October 2017

It's actually a recording made back in 2005, but I wanted to note the Compère Missa Galeazescha recently released on Arcana. I had forgotten about it, but this production directed by Paolo Da Col, bringing together multiple ensembles, was included in the first issue of the music magazine Classic Voice. I did have a pointer to the recording here at the FAQ, courtesy of information from Da Col, but hadn't sought out the magazine to hear it. Anyway, I don't know what became of the magazine, or if it's still around, but this is an impressive production worth remembering. The mass by Compère is from his time in Milan, from the local tradition cultivating masses with alternative texts, rather than those of the usual mass ordinary — a mass of motets, as it's often called. This is not the first time such repertory has been explored, particularly since there's material of this type with Josquin's name on it (although now thought to be by a different Josquin), but this is an especially lavish production. I'm not into the big fanfares, but some of the instrumental tracks are quite enjoyable & direct, and the performance in general is first rate. The cycle itself shows a real majesty that I hadn't heard much from Compère's music in the past. (The more recent Orlando Consort recording does open with a Magnificat about which similar comments could be applied.) This was obviously meant to be showy music, and it's given a showy production here (not so unlike e.g. Cantica Symphonia's Dufay albums with various instruments, although here with even more). Many of the intervening tracks aren't by Compère, with some of the best moments coming from Agricola, and there is also a relatively extensive investment in Weerbecke's music — also from Milan, and a composer who has yet to be truly featured on a commercial album (and in fact, Odhecaton was already one of the few ensembles to program one of his motets): His music comes off as some of the most straightforward here, with clear phrasing & linear momentum. The Compère cycle is more involved, and is projected here with excellent energy, as well as strong melodic & rhythmic sense. This album should have been less obscure already.

17 September 2017

Following on their album devoted to Arnold & Hugo de Lantins, which was a secular program, Le Miroir de Musique has released a Tinctoris album that also includes mass movements. The result is something I have to characterize as a Huelgas Ensemble-style program, mixing various genres: Although that has not been my preference, the quality of the interpretation, together with the quality of the music of course, makes this release too compelling to quibble, and so it's been added to my personal list. The previous album listed was that by the Clerks Group, which consisted entirely of two mass cycles. That performance was never particularly compelling, and actually handling these masses via excerpts seems OK. There is certainly far more of interest in this newer program than the two masses. Besides some motets & liturgical music, the secular songs are featured, and this comes on the heels of Ensemble Leones including a couple of Tinctoris pieces on their album Straight from the Heart — a notable inclusion for the simple reason that they come from the Segovia Manuscript, rather than the Chansonnier Cordiforme, which otherwise forms the basis for the program. Those two pieces appear again on Secret Consolations, an album that also notes that there are no pieces known to be from the last decades of Tinctoris's life. Most of the music appears to date from his time in Naples, and given the approach of performing some Latin works on instruments, a clear comparison for this new album is in fact Cantica Symphonia's L'homme armé cycle, from a Neapolitan manuscript associated with Busnois. There's no clear attribution for that cycle, and Tinctoris as its author is not out of the question. Anyway, although there are similarities, Secret Consolations comes off as less grand or stately. When this ensemble does perform an all-vocal mass movement, they do it admirably, showing clear potential for that sort of music. Mass cycles still appear to be the prestige repertory for this era, so I suppose one can expect Le Miroir de Musique to record an album dedicated to them soon. In the meantime, I welcome these secular pieces as well. They come off quite coherently & with wonderfully varied sonorities.

10 July 2017

I should note the latest issue in the Orlando Consort Machaut Edition, Sovereign Beauty. There isn't much more to say about this fourth album, but I did incorporate it into my previous "list" file. As far as the series goes, I don't know the exact plans, but counting by number of pieces — and I made no effort to tabulate the length of pieces, although obviously the Mass is substantially longer — they're just under a third of the way. This latest album is mostly early works, and doesn't feature any first recordings. Several of the lais have not been recorded, but the longer piece here is Un lay de consolation, which is both somewhat uncertain (as far as Machaut's work goes, which is generally uncommonly secure), since it appears in only one major source, and unusual in that the stanzas combine into two-voice counterpoint. The Medieval Ensemble of London had recorded the piece. There are some other favorites here, but it's mostly about filling in the project. Such an emphasis on these early works will probably be useful for the quartet as it moves back into Machaut's later music.

7 July 2017

It was actually released in December, but I didn't learn of Tetraktys' Matteo da Perugia album until more recently. (The Etcetera label continues to lack distribution here, although its production standards remain high.) This is an obvious followup to their Chantilly Codex trilogy, although Matteo's music comes from the Modena MS, where it's by far the largest single contribution to what is otherwise a manuscript of many more Ars Subtilior songs. The liner notes, mostly by Kees Boeke, are rather technical, discussing the music & text of each of the pieces in turn, including some comparisons to other pieces in the repertory. Matteo's music thus comes off as less improvisatory than that of some contemporaries, for which arguments have long been made that they may be subsequently notated improvisations, and much more carefully prepared as regards both consonance & text — the latter something that Matteo apparently tended to write for himself. The musical result is distinctive & sophisticated, with a variety of allusions (as is typical of the style). Boeke also discusses instrumental factors including text underlay, and intervallic structures in some lines. This sort of analysis provides a welcome antidote to what has sometimes become a dogmatic intent to perform everything from this era on voices alone — not that that style hasn't had its own triumphs. Boeke & Tetraktys are in excellent positions to interpret Matteo's music, not only because of their previous series — and note that Tetraktys continues to evolve as an ensemble, with a previously unknown soprano (Stefanie True, who is wonderfully idiomatic, and very much in keeping with the traditional sound of the ensemble) fronting this new album — but because of various previous endeavors. Following some modest early attention (including as early as the 1930s), then a more-intriguing-than-satisfying full program LP by the Medieval Ensemble of London, the Huelgas Ensemble (as so often, in this & other repertory) produced a coherent anthology in 1998, and this was followed quickly by a Mala Punica release in 2000, on which Boeke is a prominent participant. Whereas the Huelgas album includes mass movements & an independent motet, it does illustrate 5 songs, including 2 in common with this new production. Mala Punica recorded an entire program of secular songs, also with 2 in common (which suggests the breadth of Matteo's output), although particularly by the "Erato era" of their recording career, Memelsdorff et al.'s style came off as far too orchestrated & busy for me — basically baroque. Here, and via the Chantilly series & otherwise, Boeke brings the technical facility gained in that project into a more idiomatically medieval conception, though. So it was added to my personal list. Whereas I won't claim that it blows the Huelgas interpretation away on all points, it's revelatory for its sense of detail & just how clearly it articulates Matteo's intricate formal counterpoint. It really answers any lingering doubts as to the quality of the music. This year continues to be slow for medieval releases (and this one is actually from last year), but quality has been high, as this is another very worthwhile offering.

18 April 2017

In what I can only assume is a coincidence, Hyperion Records — which seems to have renewed a dedication to medieval repertory — released Beneath the Northern Star by the Orlando Consort & Music for the 100 Years' War by the Binchois Consort in consecutive months. Although the programs don't have the same motivations, and don't cover exactly the same time period, they both feature English polyphony from much of the 14th century & into the 15th: Indeed, they both include pieces by Power & Dunstaple, and even an identical track, the "musicians' motet" by the shadowy Alanus. It's been a while since this music was featured on a program, particularly given that technical aspects of performance practice continue to improve, and so these feel like well-timed submissions & in turn a fortunate juxtaposition.

Beneath the Northern Star is the more technical of the two programs, meaning that the pieces seem to have been selected in order to illustrate musical & contrapuntal developments, rather than to connect with broad historical events. In that, I find it to be very successful: The notes do describe the pieces, but there is no hint of the mechanics of how the program was actually chosen. Given its technical orientation, that seems like a crucial point, and I'm curious how selection functioned in practice, but we do get to hear the results. (Admittedly, this is how it normally works. We aren't told how programs are specifically selected, but this one takes in a lot of territory.) The Orlando Consort take a real "nuts & bolts" approach to articulating the music as well, with an emphasis on clarity in all lines, such that consonances themselves come into focus according to the logic of the individual pieces. (In other words, external — typically modern — notions of consonance are not imposed on the music a priori. Some of these pieces are allowed to pose questions such as what is counterpoint, what is consonance, etc.) This is a very welcome & even critical aspect of the performance, given that this era — & the English output in particular — was critical to a changing sense of musical consonance & counterpoint: Much of this music would not be considered "proper" only a few decades later. Part of the approach here involves forgoing explicitly sustaining vocal tones: Such an approach seems to draw upon the work of John Potter et al., most recently on Conductus 3, where lower voices take on their own phrasing contours rather than simply hold long notes. Such an approach then relies on the resonance of the space itself to supplement the feeling of simultaneous harmony by leaving those tones hanging in the air. On this point, I've had some criticism of the recorded sound on some recent Hyperion releases, but I think they've navigated the issues very well on Beneath the Northern Star: One can hear the voices clearly, closely, with some resonance audible but not obscuring the actual articulation with its echoes. The ideal situation, then, and unfortunately I don't have such a situation myself, would be to play the recording in a rather resonant space. In other words, although resonances are important in this repertory, if they're allowed to obscure direct articulation, one simply can't recover the ability to hear what the singers are doing once it's committed to record. In person, without the reduction of a recording, one's ear can choose. (And since some of this repertory involved itinerant courts, it likely did not involve the "perfect" space anyway.) Moreover, the time span of the program overlaps Machaut on both ends, and one can thus appreciation the elegant articulation of the quartet's Machaut Edition as expressing a universe parallel to this English material. This is a further juxtaposition by the Orlando Consort, then, making recording Beneath the Northern Star seem especially well-timed. It was added to my personal list.

It's curious that, as these two ensembles take up Dunstaple's music again, the most impressive full program continues to be the old Orlando Consort Dunstaple recording from 1995. Perhaps the groundwork of articulating this English repertory will now pave the way for new, more sophisticated Dunstaple programs & interpretations. After all, he's often described as one of Western Music's most influential composers, so the relative gap in recordings is surprising. Of course, these things tend to come in waves, such that e.g. the previous recording I had most admired for the English 14th century was Diabolus in Musica's album from 2002 — a long time on the scale of medieval performance practice, although I'm often surprised to see how long it's been since a particular recording appeared. Time flies. (Anyway, it's closer chronologically to the Orlando Dunstaple album now than it is to the present day.) That album is highly resonant, featuring quite a bit of sustaining tones, but also reflected Diabolus in Musica's extensive experience with specific Ars Antiqua genres. Anyway, it had already followed interest in this repertory from famous English ensembles that had formed in the 1980s into the early 90s — the peak of contemporary medieval production. (Exploration of Old Hall etc. at that time had already deemphasized Dunstaple somewhat, at least relative to attention in the earlier 20th century. It was a time to expand the repertory beyond the big names.) Now it's famous English performers again....

As already suggested, including by its title, Music for the 100 Years' War is more concerned with historical events than contrapuntal curiosities, but of course it does seek quality music. Still, some of the tracks don't do much for me. (I find the Agincourt Carol rather abrasive for instance.) The style is also less intricate than what the Orlando Consort projects, although with plenty of sophistication of its own, particularly given the Binchois Consort's experiences in tuning c.1420 repertory. But there is quite a bit of part doubling, and more sustain — in short, less emphasis on clear articulation, but one does get a powerful (& smoother) sound, with an emphasis on soaring lines. (The recorded sound is also satisfying.) This is also something of a "multimedia" project, paired with English alabaster carvings of the period. Although it might not fare as well, given the way that I've approached the juxtaposition of these two releases that seem to demand comparison, illuminating different historical cross currents across media is a fine idea, and Music for the 100 Years' War is an enjoyable album that features some particularly elaborate music by Dunstaple.

16 April 2017

I already noted the curiosity of the relatively new ensemble Beauty Farm, working in the same manner from the same monastery in Austria as The Sound and the Fury, releasing two Gombert albums followed by an Ockeghem album — just as The Sound and the Fury had done. Well, Beauty Farm's Gombert programs, concentrating on the motets, were rather different. And now, instead of duplicating that earlier Ockeghem program (which it had been my understanding they had intended to do), Beauty Farm has released Ockeghem Masses, featuring only half of the same program, namely the Missa L'homme armé. I had not been particularly taken with Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé, despite its seemingly significant historical position, until recently: I very much enjoyed the Ensemble Nusmido recording (another young ensemble), and thought they finally made the piece make sense. (I also enjoy their recorder consort versions of the Busnoys & Ockeghem companion pieces.) I feel bad to abandon them so soon, but Beauty Farm takes a similar approach to phrasing, and ends up with a more forecful reading. It's quite enjoyable. The Missa Quinti toni has not been recorded as frequently, and my favorite had long been the Lyrichord recording of the three-part masses. This is another obscure reading, I suppose, much like Nusmido, so Beauty Farm tackled some pieces with performance I already enjoyed, but which were probably not so widely known. Regarding the three-voice masses, there is an offhand remark in the notes about the Missa Quinti toni being the only securely attributed one, and I suppose that makes sense, given that the Missa Sine nomine (which I have long enjoyed) never fit very well into an Ockeghem chronology. (I don't know any further details on this remark, however.) Still, I lament this turn of events (too), since these interesting mid-15th century masses seem to disappear from the repertory whenever someone determines they weren't by one of the most famous composers — or worse, are anonymous. Too bad. So I did add this new recording to my personal list, and it's enjoyable — I don't want to suggest that it isn't — but I do also hope that Beauty Farm will tackle some less-traveled material again next.

25 March 2017

The release of Ensemble Gilles Binchois' recording of Isaac's Missa Virgo prudentissima was delayed a bit by acquisitions in the music publishing business, but did nonetheless happen last year. The album marks perhaps the ensemble's most direct essay illustrating the height of Franco-Flemish polyphonic style, although they had previously recorded the Spanish sixteenth century — a time & place that supported some of the older trends, together with some of its own innovations — somewhat extensively. So this music is more modern than in most of their discography, but certainly not extreme in any way. (Indeed, they not only recorded Palestrina in 1993, but have continued to examine various old-fashioned repertory surviving in practice as late as into the nineteenth century.) This is also Isaac's most elaborate large format setting, although it does retain some of the emphasis on chant & homophony that marks his most functional music, i.e. his enormous output of Propers etc. — emphasizing clear articulation as it does in forging the composite Franco-Flemish-Austrian style that was to have such a lasting effect on music in Central & Eastern Europe. In this sense, the present liner notes suggest the Missa Virgo prudentissima as a particularly "mixed" piece, an elaborate cycle intended for Maximilian's coronation in Rome, and so mediating the various stylistic influences, but not toward simplicity as in so much of Isaac's output. The six-voice counterpoint thus underscores the gravity of the occasion, making this his "most important Ordinary" by at least some measures. (This is the second complete recording, after a 1998 production from Munich.) The interpretation itself shows a careful attention to plainchant, which both plays to the long-term strength of the ensemble & reflects what seems often to be Isaac's own concern. With the mixed vocal ensemble, and the sharpness of the sopranos, not to mention the frequent alternation of Isaac's formal style, the music tends to soar & return in compact phrases that emphasize its clarity amidst a big overall sound. Framed by a couple of Isaac's polyphonic Propers pieces, the program is thus a clear & admirable expression of (apparently?) his most elaborate large-scale cycle.

4 January 2017

Maurice Bourbon continues his Josquin mass cycle series with Josquin: Messes Pange lingua & de beata Virgine, apparently the sixth album (or the fourth, according to the current notes, which makes little sense) in a planned series of ten. (Note that, as opposed to The Tallis Scholars, Bourbon has now re-recorded the Missa Pange lingua, and his earlier recording does not number in the current series.) These are both two of Josquin's best known cycles, and perhaps the most closely based on imitative harmonizing of plainchant: In that sense, they present something of an ascetic return to an emphasis on chant amid the turbulence of religious strife, and as emerging from the most elaborate contrapuntal expressions of the period. (This is why various people have viewed Josquin as anticipating the Counter-Reformation, although obviously I'm more interested in music prior to those events. Note that such "events" conspicuously include the beginnings of New World genocide as well.) This is well-known music, then, and I didn't feel as though this newest interpretation added much to the discography: It basically follows what one would expect, given its precedents both for the singers themselves & for the repertory more broadly. That said, there are also some niceties of rhythm & tempo that might be taken as idiosyncratic at times. A motet program presumably would have been more worthwhile, although I do welcome Bourbon finishing his intended series. Perhaps there are some revelations still to come.

3 January 2017

I had always had misgivings about albums from Cappella Pratensis, since they usually seemed to be softly articulated, hazy, just not very forceful or confident. (Their strength has been attention to plainchant, using original notation around a choirbook, and otherwise a non-dogmatic approach.) In fact, in keeping with the previous entry on Josquin, even their prior album featuring the Missa Ave maris stella (released in 2014) left me with some similar misgivings (despite adding it to my personal list). In fairness, this issue might have arisen in part from the way their albums were recorded. However, with their Visions of Joy album, focused on La Rue's Missa Cum jocunditate, the misgivings vanish: This new release projects a great sense of gravity & intensity, a real grittiness — not "hazy" at all (and perhaps this is due in part to some influence from Graindelavoix?). So this is a very welcome development, and hopefully it will continue. Whereas I think the new album is one of the best-performed albums in the La Rue discography, and indeed for music of this era, the material itself does not excite me so much, unfortunately. (It seems strange that I'm continuing to recommend their prior Josquin album instead, since the performance style isn't as developed, but that's the situation. One might think that there'd be many great recordings of Josquin, but that simply isn't the case. Somehow, there are more good ones devoted to La Rue these days.) For some reason, the Hilliard Ensemble selected the Missa Cum jocunditate — with its early ostinato style & buoyant mood — for their EMI album devoted to La Rue, certainly one of the most significant of its time, and that choice was (apparently) copied by Henry's Eight when they recorded a related program several years afterward (but almost twenty years ago now). Although I've found some of La Rue's earliest masses to be intriguing, this one just doesn't do it for me. Perhaps it's too straightforward. (In this, I contrast with the recent Missa Inviolata recording from September, since I found that cycle to be quite compelling in its internal rhythmic proliferation. Perhaps it's also time for a new interpretation of the Missa Sancta dei genitrix, a later ostinato mass.) The remainder of the program doesn't help much: It's based on confraternity manuscripts & practice from 's-Hertogenbosch (also home of the ensemble), and although I appreciate adding polyphony, instead of only plainchant for the liturgical pieces framing the mass, the choice of pieces is rather idiosyncratic & not terribly appealing. I don't understand the choice to use the separate O salutaris hostia, for instance, despite that it was a known practice, and indeed La Rue's own Missa de Sancta Anna survives in only that form (i.e. without a section of the mass setting). This is not the case for the Missa Cum jocunditate, which expands to five voices (with a homophonic character) in the Credo (a procedure La Rue reprised for the similarly themed Missa Ave Maria), which survives intact, though. Indeed, the overall program is remarkably similar to their Josquin program, where the latter is oriented on Sistine Chapel practices. Both include a worthwhile, concluding motet, for which there is "some evidence," at least in the Low Countries. Indeed, the Sistine program seems retroactively motivated by Northern practice — which, of course, would have been a major influence at the time. In this case, there are also tracks with organ, and I enjoy those: The sixteenth century organ has a wonderful sound, and is played with great command & grace. So again, the performance is excellent, even if the program is strange. The mass cycle's recognizable sense of joyful triumph should make it popular, however: Visions of Joy becomes a quite reasonable choice for introducing the general public to large-scale Franco-Flemish polyphony (pace the caveat about the overall program).

30 November 2016

I confess that I had not paid much attention to the Missa Di dadi, attributed to Josquin going back to at least Petrucci, largely because it is not considered to be one of his representative or mature works. Indeed this piece, particularly as performed so crisply & articulately by The Tallis Scholars, might not even be by Josquin, and so its situation only underlines our relatively tenuous knowledge of his overall output & timeline. At one point, I expected these questions to resolve themselves, at least to a far greater extent than they have, but apparently the fact that labeling a piece as by "Josquin" was a great way to bring attention to it, not to mention the existence of (possibly more than one) contemporary composers with similar names, has made a mess of the situation such that it might never be resolved. Anyway, the Missa Di dadi isn't much like Josquin's securely attributed mature cycles, unless one counts the tendency to build to a climax, something many mass cycles of the earlier generation did not do, but it's a rather masterful essay in its own style, more evocative of the years during which Josquin (if we even have a sense of his actual age) would have been young. On this point, there seems to be little doubt regarding the earliness of the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, and this is apparently the first recording of the cycle, although Josquin's song of the same name is found on a few anthologies: Frankly, this is a deeply flawed cycle, and quite forgettable. I don't blame Peter Phillips for including it, not at all, and hey, now it's been recorded. The notes from the distributor also state that this is album six of nine in their Josquin series, which seems to mark a quite concrete plan, revealed (at least to me) here for the first time — i.e. they apparently do not intend to redo their earliest Josquin interpretations (which are also deeply flawed, yet of some of his most famous music). The previous album was nice enough, but features some of Josquin's best-known settings, basically in the style of harmonized chant (and I'll have a bit more to say about the Missa Ave maris stella, likely in the next entry), so that's been broadly appealing to the public. Here we have something more unusual — and I might imagine the Missa Di dadi as coming from the circle of Busnoys or Caron (per a recent entry in this space): The notion of using the throw of dice also appeals to me, both because of the (continuing) 20th century trend for stochastic music, and for my own further exploration around medieval concepts of chance or fortune. (Josquin's Missa Fortuna desperata is, of course, an explicitly relevant setting on this exact theme, with its musical "turning of the wheel.") Despite that I only enjoy half of this program, I added it to my personal list. The Missa Di dadi does seem to be something of a monument, to whatever it actually is.

29 November 2016

Coincidentally, I'll return immediately to the Huelgas Ensemble & their long-time "unicorn" production of the Cypriot "O"-antiphons, indeed their second recording (from 1989, after a recording from 1983): Björn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix have now made their own recording of this cycle, including a variety of both Eastern & Western chants for context. Whereas the Huelgas recording used instruments on some lines, and emphasized doubling & parallel motion amongst the complexity of the isorhythmic construction, yielding (perhaps paradoxically) a relatively sparse contrapuntal result, Graindelavoix continues with the sort of gritty chant-based style that they recently developed around Ars Antiqua motets & especially the Machaut Mass (as discussed here in May, particularly regarding its drones) — the companion album to this, their Cypriot Vespers disc, per Schmelzer. The notes also attribute the entire Turin manuscript to the previously obscure Jean Hanelle, and ask how single authorship affects reception of the rather large manuscript. Apparently preparation of the manuscript was supervised personally by Hanelle from 1434-36 after he had left Cyprus. His is now the largest known output of the era, although the manuscript itself shows no sign of practical use. Schmelzer uses some of these facts to interrogate the entire idea of a masterpiece, and I continue to be impressed by the isorhythmic antiphon cycle: Who knows how many large-scale isorhythmic works of the period — paralleling parts of Dufay's output in that form, in this case, and Hanelle is now claimed as one of Dufay's teachers — are lost to us, but within that relative vacuum, this remains fascinating music. (And I enjoy Hanelle's secular music as well.) In any case, the cycle thrives with the more flexible & melodic (purely vocal) articulation from Graindelavoix, making this another item for my personal list, replacing what had been one of the oldest recordings in the Huelgas DHM disc. The (still?) strange-sounding sort of "backward" cadential ornament pioneered by Van Nevel is retained, however. Schmelzer actually attributes the affective success of this cycle to the careful placement of text in the closely supervised manuscript. (He also improves the tempo relations in his interpretation, as more a result of improved general understanding over the past 30 years.) Although the unique character of this cycle doesn't suggest that lessons of the interpretation will be applicable to much other music, the album does build conceptually on Graindelavoix's previous crossings of e.g. Ars Antiqua & Machaut (as noted), and even earlier efforts such as their increasingly iconic (and quite ample) Cecus album, with its own crossings. So what's next from this increasingly intriguing group?

14 November 2016

I had no idea that the Huelgas Ensemble has been releasing so many albums for Sony on their Deutsche Harmonia Mundi imprint the past few years, but a correspondent recently let me know. In fact, that information, which included several albums about which I had been totally unaware (presumably because "majors" feel no need to publicize), came only days before I would have been confronted with the existence of their new Caron album anyway: It appeared on a listing I regularly check. It seems a little strange for the Huelgas Ensemble to continue their long-time series of "selections" albums (here, canonically, with a mass cycle formed of movements from five individual mass cycles) with Caron, considering the recent & very extensive Sound and the Fury set (not to mention that group's landmark earlier album), but that's just what they've done. One might even portray this as the opposite of the Pipelare situation, where a Huelgas Ensemble album (this time with a full mass setting!) was followed 18 years later by the Sound and the Fury album that really cemented that composer's reputation for me. Regardless of such niceties, it's great that Caron continues to receive attention after so much neglect, and the Huelgas album is actually among their most compelling performance-wise. The mass sections are given emphatic & strong rhythmic articulations, clearly illustrating their various intriguing qualities. The chansons, as on the Pipelare album & others, are given a more idiosyncratic interpretation, performed in multiple versions leaving out one voice or another — so as to illustrate various musical relations, per Van Nevel. The chanson performances are not the strength of The Sound and the Fury set — and indeed I mistakenly believed something I read about this reduced set being somehow canonical — and so the Huelgas interpretations are generally welcome, although done in this strange way, since they include a couple of different songs. Van Nevel also casually remarks that Caron may have been in the circle of Busnoys in Naples and may be the author of the cycle of six L'homme armé masses (most recently attributed to Busnoys in a recent tour de force album, but of course the Huelgas had already recorded sections as well). His remark is so offhand that I can't even tell how serious he is. In any case, while this album has its appealing qualities, and Van Nevel continues to be one of the most knowledgeable people working in the field, it's tough to prefer a brief set of extracts. I'd still like to see an entire album devoted to the chansons.

The strangeness of Van Nevel's continuing program choices is even more evident in the Malheur me bat album released last year that I (also) only just noticed. How is it that a "major," of all things, puts out such a weird "music nerd" album? I don't understand that, but as a music nerd, I was interested in listening to Van Nevel's musical deconstruction of Malheur me bat, a song he describes as the most famous composition in the Phrygian mode, and as one whose original version — even whose text — will never be known. So this program employs various extracts, including e.g. performing sections of Josquin's Agnus Dei with only some of its parts, to illustrate aspects of this piece. They even vocalize an organ piece by Cabezón, and if Van Nevel is to be taken literally, the singers wore masks for that! Indeed, the album starts with a mysterious air, as various sections do not have semantic articulation, so as to emphasize the unknown quality regarding the original lyrics. This mysterious air is, of course, reflected in the album title, but also makes for a rather inarticulate album, one that seems to want to hide. This is what Van Nevel says that Malheur me bat itself does, before being definitively "unmasked" by Josquin. So Van Nevel finds his setting to be definitive, I guess, and thus ends a rather strange album (that also includes extracts of other masses already recorded complete by others) with it. Anyway, it's good to know that this sort of production has been occurring: It seems almost like a public seminar.

13 November 2016

Although I was very enthusiastic about Beauty Farm's first album, devoted to Gombert motets, I guess I never did provide much detail for my appreciation of the music on my personal list. Now with Gombert Motets II, not only has Beauty Farm made its second album another Gombert album, just as The Sound and the Fury had done, but they've announced a third album for next spring devoted to Ockeghem, and to include the Missa L'homme armé — also as The Sound and the Fury had done on their third album, albeit without duplicating the entire program. Regardless of this oddity, and it is indeed rather odd in my opinion, the second Gombert album is quite welcome, and once again features some fine motets. I've recently lamented that motets of the era — and Gombert is "end of era" for me — aren't being recorded much lately, so this is an obvious exception. Personally, I'd like to see Beauty Farm direct similar attention to Josquin's motets. Four hours of Josquin motet classics, with this kind of attention to detail & energy? That would be fantastic. In any case, I'm happy that Beauty Farm continue to record, since I particularly enjoy their style. At some point, maybe I'll finally say something more specific about the individual motets on their Gombert programs.

26 October 2016

Marc Lewon & associates continue to make a welcome assault on the vast lacuna of late fifteenth century & early sixteenth century secular music on recording, this time with Straight from the Heart from the Chansonnier Cordiforme. The latter is clearly one of the leading, if not clearly the leading, source of its era (c.1470) for such chansons (& beyond, since it includes Italian pieces & even one Spanish song). The earlier Consort of Musicke recording is of course a classic as a triple album from 1979. Although I find many recordings from that era to be grating, especially as regards tuning & ensemble blend, I could still warm up to the Consort of Musicke performances for some reason, probably mostly the great music itself. Nonetheless, a new performance is very welcome, and I've added it to my personal list. The new program is much shorter, but well chosen so as to illustrate a variety of genres from the manuscript, as well as a variety of performance styles that have been or can be used in this repertory. It still sounds very familiar, presumably on account of familiarity with the songs themselves, but also because David Fallows is once again centrally involved, and indeed his arrangements from the old triple album are often used again here. (I also heartily agree with Fallows' crack in the notes about how bass lines became so boring after this era, and for about 500 years! I mentioned something similar in the previous entry.) Although not all of the interpretive styles are exactly to my taste, the variety is welcome, and the result is an immediately compelling album that is not only enjoyable for us long-time participants in this project, but would seem to make a great introduction too. (So Marc, how about a Busnoys album? None of his songs from the chansonnier were included in this program....) If you're reading this because you're interested in the other repertory I discuss, and might have a vague interest in medieval (secular) music, this would seem to be a great album for you too. The notes do say which pieces are in which style, how they're performed, etc., so that part is easy to follow.

25 October 2016

Generally speaking, I've been more interested in listening to ensembles moving from earlier music to later music, e.g. working with Machaut, and then performing Ars Subtilior, etc. Not that there's only one way to do historical performance, but this approach does have the advantage of following the historical arc of a piece, i.e. it sounds new (rather than old) relative to what the group did before — in much the same way that all creative music sounded new relative to its own precedents. Anyway, the Brabant Ensemble's recording of La Rue is more of a retrospective look from an ensemble that has mostly recorded music of later decades. It's true that they've already recorded Brumel & Mouton, but both of those contemporaries of La Rue are known for their "modern" chordal style, i.e. their music fits more easily into a general sixteenth century aesthetic. It's hard not to hear the doubled, mixed choir in this way, right from the opening, what with its soaring highs & staid lower lines, but the disc nonetheless makes an important contribution to the discography: The relatively early Missa Nuncqua fue pena major (on a villancico by Urrede) had only appeared completely on a rather obscure recording, and the mature Missa Inviolata is a premiere. I wrote the prior before reading the liner notes by Rice, and there he does emphasize things like chordal or homophonic passages & makes note of his performance decisions to slow the pulse at some points. It's no secret that I'm no fan of the latter technique, decried by Josquin among others, although it did quickly become a feature of the sixteenth century, with its generally more placid & smooth polyphony. Here there's also a similar & related tendency to sectionalize the music & reduce each to a particular gesture. Again, such an approach reflects the Counter-Reformation, for which composers adopted a simplified approach in order to emphasize comprehensibility for the public. (Much of the simplification might be said to have focused on the bass, whereas La Rue wrote great, dynamic bass lines.) The Magnificat performance, using alternation (as was/is typical), is consequently the most immediately ear-catching on the album, with the later mass — and its relatively smooth style — coming off better than the earlier one too. The Missa Inviolata does present as a significant piece, one with no immediate analog in La Rue's output despite not possessing a distinctive organizing trait (as some of his extraordinary masses do), and the album is well worth hearing. The energy of the group becomes infectious, and the Missa Inviolata in particular paints an amazing sonic portrait. Perhaps the more modern orientation of the performance will bring more attention to La Rue.

Not unlike some other albums featuring a La Rue mass, most recently Missa Pourquoy non?, but going back to Missa Incessament, etc., despite some misgivings regarding the interpretation, the Missa Inviolata makes this disc too intriguing to ignore. It thus finds its way onto my personal list. The filigree approach to selfhood & internalization, constantly leading further inside itself, while apparently criticized by some writers as inaudible, ultimately makes the Missa Inviolata one of La Rue's most intriguing. The polished distance of the present ensemble might even be an asset there.

Finally, the present liner notes again assert that the mass is the center of La Rue's oeuvre, which I think is far from clear, but regardless of whether some people feel that way, where are the other programs? I sometimes feel as though I ought to be tempering my criticism for fear that, some decade hence, I'll be lamenting the lack of mass recordings. (It's also fair to wonder what my remark really means, given that I've just featured this album for one of its masses.) Nonetheless, I must openly wonder why such a preponderance of recordings of music from this era continues to focus on the mass in recent years.

19 September 2016


Discussion

I will now be keeping at least a year of remarks on this page. This will allow readers to construct their own year-end summaries of recordings in this category, if they so desire. (There is now also an archive, although it dates only to the October 2014 format revision.)

Because of changes in the recording business, and taking a more flexible approach personally, the timeliness of remarks will not be as much of a priority as in the past. So items might be discussed somewhat later than they appear, and the "year" in releases will be compromised.

(I will dispense with the other self-serving remarks that used to occupy this space, and keep it brief.)


To past remarks.

To early music CD Index with search.

To jazz remarks.

To Early Music FAQ.

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>