1997 in Review

The holiday season was far more tumultuous than I had anticipated, and I'm not even close to having things back together. So please forgive me while I take this column to indulge in some thoughts on the past year, perhaps proving to be a fortuitous trend. One thing I've done for the past few years is pick a Medieval & Renaissance Record of the Year, and I recently did the same for 1997. Take a moment to look at that article, and then I'll use this space for some further reflections on those developments, as well as some remarks on areas outside of those genres.

My remarks and recommendations in that article basically stand on their own, but one thing to note is the way that so many items seem to arrive in pairs or together in some way. For instance, there were four separate recordings of Ockeghem's Missa De plus en plus. One might imagine that this, or similar events, was induced by the appearance of a new edition, etc. Yet these recordings all use different editions, frequently their own, as do many of the year's Ockeghem issues. So why not some of the other masses? I really have no idea. It seems like many repertory areas are completely absent, and then available in two or three recordings within a few months. Of course, other "fads" continued apace, with perhaps the most notable release in the continuing explosion of Hildegard recordings being that by Anonymous 4. Although I don't have conclusive statistics at hand, it seemed to be the most broadly popular of the year's medieval releases. On the reissue front there were two clear standouts, the Hilliard Ensemble's Dunstable disc and the Medieval Ensemble of London's Complete Dufay Songs, both of which had been unavailable for so long.

Moving somewhat farther afield, there were some notable releases of music from historical Europe but outside of what is generally called "Early Music." Late 1996 saw what seem thus far to be the most idiomatic issues of ancient Greek and Andalusí music to date. While both include several conjectural elements, they each have compelling qualities. The latter was the Arabic music of Muslim Spain and is thus strongly comparable to that from Morocco today, making it more a subset of world music. Within 1997, there was a major attempt to reconstruct ancient Roman music which must be noted. Although there the number of sources is scarce indeed, and the level of conjecture extremely high, some fundamental ideas do manage to shine through in this engaging production. These issues seem to represent a trend in the exploration of music peripheral to the core of EM, with a further example in the continuing application of Celtic & folk improvisation styles to more mainstream HIP. These are some of the ramifications on my earlier remarks on the saturation of scholarly sources, for better or worse. There is certainly a restlessness which continues in the HIP movement.

When it comes to Indian classical music, sadly the most notable event was the lack of events. There was not a single major issue (meaning on an international label meeting the highest production standards) of a performance of any real significance. That sounds extremely harsh, but I cannot honestly think of one. Although Indian music continues on Indian labels, frequently with dubious standards and sporadic availability, recitals elsewhere are slow in coming. Of course there were many such reissues, with the most notable being a new series devoted to Amir Khan in transcendental historical performance. There was also a reissue of Vilayat Khan in top form. Carnatic music releases tended to be quite uneventful, and major labels showed unfortunately no increased interest. I'm not sure what this says for the future of Indian music, because although it is more widely known than ever, the most intricate & compelling examples continue to be relatively unappreciated.

Elsewhere in the world, there was a fine quality ney recital from Iran, and a very illuminating series from Armenia which really established that country's instrumental & song tradition in the discography. The emergence of a Central Asian art discography continued with a few releases of note, including an important vocal release from Bukhara. Indeed the Ocora label (among others) continues to release a dizzying array of quality productions from around the world. In many cases I have not concentrated on the repertory to any degree, but this is a matter of personal priority as much as anything, and not an indication of what I might extract from it if given the proper investment. There are also an increasing number of fusion efforts, something I must view as a positive step, if with a bit of ambivalence. Here let me make a "Record of the Year" selection in parallel with that above, namely the fine set of Armenian secular songs on Celestial Harmonies.

When it comes to "regular" Western classical music, 1997 was a fine Brahms year, for whatever reason. The Harnoncourt set appeared, as did the concerto disc with Kremer. Haitink's symphony cycle made it to the US in a packaged release, and two quality recordings of my beloved string quintets appeared. For Beethoven, Brendel's latest piano sonata set appeared at the end of 1996. When it comes to Baroque music, there were literally dozens of quality renditions of relatively unknown music which appeared in the past year, perhaps making it that much more difficult to make specific note of any one of them. I'll mention Hantaï's Frescobaldi in passing. Many other areas undoubtedly received favorable attention in the past year, but I am in no position to appraise them. Specifically, I find myself quite out of touch with modern music recording, a situation I should correct for 1998.

Although there were no major points of transition, trends in the recording industry remained more or less the same. There was more variety available than ever, but that is essentially a cumulative phenomenon. Many releases continued to become even more difficult to obtain, forging the expectation that traditional retail sales of less popular items will cease before too long. That's where the Internet comes into play, as I expect music to be available directly from performers or their agents. The question is the format, and I remain concerned that audio quality will take a major hit. The lack of centrality will make releases that much more difficult to track, but the resulting disperson of authority should be seen as a positive artistic step.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb