Remarks on Recent Recordings

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.


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

Nothing to discuss this month, but there are some items on the horizon.

This is the last time I will make a "nothing to say" post. In the future, I will post as needed, more or less than monthly. Some changes will be made to the framing comments here soon.

September 2014

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.

August 2014

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.

July 2014

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.

June 2014

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.

May 2014

Discussion

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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Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>