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.
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.
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.
Nothing to report.
The 500th anniversary of Antonio de Cabezón's birth was in 2010, and didn't produce much buzz. However, it appears the results of that anniversary were merely slow to make it out into the world of commercial recordings, and suddenly a variety are appearing. Last year, Glen Wilson's first Cabezón recording appeared, focusing on the more abstract tientos & diferencias. Now is another volume focusing on the glosas. These are Cabezón's pieces ornamenting famous courtly songs of the period with keyboard-instrumental style, so aren't as abstract as (especially) the tientos. The latter make a more powerful impression on me, but all of Cabezón's music is enjoyable. I like the way Wilson plays this music, but he's also taking kind of a pan-European style on harpsichord; I think there's more here that a more specialized performer could project.
Wilson's recordings are not the only releases, as suggested by the opening couple of remarks: There's an instrumental ensemble recording by Doulce Mémoire, and an organ recording on Lindoro. (This latter was apparently released in Spain closer to the anniversary, but only appeared in the USA this month.) Both records have their appeal, with the Doulce Mémoire disc likewise taking a pan-European perspective and also arranging the pieces for instrumental ensemble. Both are reasonable choices, given Cabezón's wide travels, and that his music was intended to be flexible. The Lindoro disc is more specialized, using an organ built in 1750; it has a big sound, even if was a small organ for the period. Both recordings focus more on the glosas or hymns. Both also provide other perspectives on Cabezón's oeuvre, although perhaps this is a time to remind people about Claudio Astronio's series from the 90s as already having illustrated diverse combinations.
It's taken me a little longer than usual to discuss the new Ockeghem recording from The Sound and the Fury. Partly I've been preoccupied with other projects, hopefully nearing some more concrete results, but it's also unusual to have such "competition" in interpretations for such central music from the period. The Music Nova recording of the Cuiusvis toni mass was my Record of the Year in 2007, and their Prolationum disc was one I enthusiastically discussed only in March. (I did know that the new recording from The Sound and the Fury would be coming, however.) So superseding these recordings in my personal list did come with a bit of pain, even as I knew I'd have to do it. The momentum The Sound and the Fury have right now with this music is simply too compelling to let an egalitarian urge toward interpretive variety intervene. This release also includes the scores created for these interpretations, as a computer-readable file on one of the audio discs. (I don't actually know how to access this myself, or what is required.) Together with this ensemble's previous Ockeghem recording, these releases effectively rewrite the Ockeghem discography, and with it the relevant decades of the fifteenth century (although chronology is imperfectly understood). In any case, this is the latest in an amazing run through & rethinking of this repertory — who knows how long it will last, but once completed, as they always are, any reluctance to embrace the same ensemble's performances in such succession will surely fade into the past as well.
I feel like 2013 has been a slow year for medieval music overall, but then, it's only July. I don't think, at all, that the possibilities in this repertory have been played out, so there will surely be more to come.
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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