Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2000

I spent a good deal of time in previous years discussing some of my criteria for recordings, and it becomes tedious (at least to me) to rehash them. At this point, there is so much context, with documents from years past online in a variety of areas, that my choices themselves say more about my priorities than any abstract statements. A recording has to show me something. It has to be new somehow, and it has to be musically impressive in an abstract sense. Every year, there are numerous recordings which are much like previous recordings, and even if they are accomplished, unless they are remarkable or to be preferred in some concrete way, I ignore them.

The 14th and 15th centuries remain my focus here, and there are still many fine contrapuntal works from this period which have never been recorded, as well as innumerable ways in which previous interpretations can be improved. This year was a rather slow year for recordings of note in this core area, making the present listing relatively short. I must state emphatically that I do not compromise on what I include, so that every included recording is worthy. If I ever have to make a list of only two recordings for a year, I will do so.

In some ways, this situation is a welcome change from the past few years, where it seemed as though too many recordings had excellent claims for Record of the Year, and I began to run out of superlatives. The top four recordings last year would have been the first choice this year; likewise three from 1998. This is more a year of consolidation, a statement offered for perspective only, and one which should not detract from the actual choices. The top two recordings (between which I had some difficulty deciding) are clearly outstanding, although each ensemble has a recording I would grade slightly higher (and which did not win). I will discuss that below.

Living in a cultural backwater such as the United States makes it increasingly difficult to hear interesting recordings at all. Many are never released here, or only with a few copies or after large delays. Although I manage to cope with these issues, even if I lament the state of my own country, the result is that it can be difficult to say "This is a recording from 2000." I might not learn of a recording until later, or I might anticipate that it will not appear in the US and buy it abroad prior to a regular US release. I also receive many promotional copies, but this can be even more haphazard. Although these details seem trivial, I want to be accurate, and so cannot attest to the precision of my "released in 2000" criterion. I do my best on this point.

Record of the Year

Regular readers will know that I do not hold Josquin as the greatest composer of his generation. There is no question but that Josquin was extremely influential, and indeed that he was a very accomplished and persuasive composer, but the techniques Josquin pioneered too often became routine & mechanical in the hands of his followers. This is not the fault of Josquin himself, of course, but it also means that I will not let influence trump quality. Some of his contemporaries were composers of at least equal imagination and skill. This is true of both Pierre de la Rue and Jakob Obrecht (1457/8-1505). Obrecht's predilection for abstract large-scale counterpoint is almost unprecedented, and his music is consequently sphinx-like in its grandeur. Until recently, although Obrecht possessed a complete scholarly edition and extensive published discussion, his recorded discography was modest at best. That changed first with the Tallis Scholars and continues to change. Among early composers, there is no question but that Obrecht's masses are the most symphonic, and consequently occupy a special place. His sense of counterpoint, of contrapuntal momentum as it applies to individual phrases, combined with overall architectural planning serves to make Obrecht's masses into premier examples of small-to-large scale development and organic dependence.

Obrecht: Missa Si dedero / Missa Pfauenschwanz
Ars Nova Secunda Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 31946

The second Obrecht recording by János Bali's ensemble is certainly no disappointment, forming a worthy successor to the first. Although that first recording made the greater impact, coming out of (seemingly) nowhere as it did with such an amazing confidence and compelling presentation of some of Obrecht's best music, if anything, the next recording is even more abstract and intriguing. In some ways, Obrecht is almost an instrumental composer, and indeed Agricola's Si dedero, on which the first mass is built, survives in instrumental version most prominently. Obrecht's own secular music does not survive with words, and no one seems to lament their loss. Obrecht's text setting is sometimes lax, but his structural achievements are enormous, especially as explored in the present program. He represents the end of at least one strand of medievalism in his refusal to let issues of text underlay detract from the desired motivic development of his music. I had the good fortune to hear concert recordings by the Ars Nova Secunda Chorus from prior to their recording career, and in their Missa Adieu mes amours (also by Obrecht) from 1993, one can hear a fairly serviceable interpretation of some fine music, in a similar tentative style to that of many recorded versions of music from this era. However, one can also perceive the very determined effort of this group to improve their command and conviction, and as their interpretations improved through the years with programs of Ockeghem and Brumel, they were able to burst on the recorded scene with an Obrecht program recorded in 1998. As I remarked last year, the energy displayed is impressive, as is the command of the music, and similar comments apply to this followup disc. These are some of the most energetic renditions available, and that energy does not come at the expense of distorting the music for effect. The second mass, in particular, constructed on a basse danse (much like Faugues'), is an incredible contrapuntal-architectural monument, performed with verve and precision. Even as a "second volume," this interpretation impresses. One might wonder how I can bemoan the poor articulation in some other renditions, yet adopt an enthusiasm for specific settings which are almost indifferent to text. The answer is a simple one: I want the phonemes of the music to vary its sonority and color, and not let the vocal tone become homogenous and colorless. The present ensemble never falls into this "new age" trap of warmed-over nothingness. Obrecht's is the kind of music which deserves a much wider following, one in keeping with his reputation as formed in the modern age by Webern et al., and it consequently needs a forceful performance to have its full impact.

Runner Up

Composers bridging the stylistic gap between Dufay and Ockeghem had been relatively slow to appear on recording, but this situation is changing. Recently we've received worthwhile programs devoted to Tinctoris and then Faugues, but some important composers of the period have remained essentially unrecorded. This year saw the situation with regard to Johannes Regis (c.1430-1496) rectified, and even included a a new recording of his famous motet O admirabile commercium to supplement the landmark interpretation by James Woods. The primary release was certainly that devoted to Regis' two mass cycles.

Regis: Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini / Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium
Schola Discantus - Kevin Moll
Lyrichord 8044

Kevin Moll seems to record only programs of the highest interest, and this one is no exception. The comparison to Faugues should not be taken lightly, as the writing shares many stylistic elements, but the novelty of an all-Regis program is likewise notable. The complexity of the first mass in particular is high, marking it as one of the central works of the mid-to-late 15th century. Like Obrecht's, Regis' writing displays a great command of contrapuntal ideas, as well as a boundless energy. The large-scale architecture is not at the same level, but the sense of melody in even the most remote "corners" of the work is among its most impressive traits. As noted, I would not grade this disc at quite the level of Moll's previous Ockeghem recording (which should perhaps have been Record of the Year for 1997), due to the fact that the second mass (although adding to the l'homme armé discography) is not quite of the same caliber. However, the interpretive advances achieved in that recording are evident here, in a very confident and compelling delivery, combined with a personal and transparent sonority. The interpretation is as accomplished as can be, setting new standards of contrapuntal transparency for what is otherwise difficult and potentially confusing music. By establishing Regis in the recorded discography, this recording is ensured of remaining notable for years to come.

More Medieval Repertory...

Perhaps even more notable in terms of the repertory itself, a quality interpretation of Dufay's complete isorhythmic motets appeared on a single CD in 2000. Dufay's motets are the final examples of the isorhythmic style, and so serve to bring the medieval era to a close in at least one sense. The grandeur and intellectual complexity of this music are almost unparalleled, making this series of motets a singular landmark of Western music.

O Gemma Lux
Dufay: Intégrale des motets isorythmiques
Huelgas Ensemble - Paul Van Nevel
Harmonia Mundi 901700

The performance by the Huelgas ensemble is certainly a worthy one, but can hardly be called outstanding. The dominant texture of soprano voices and low instruments does serve to project a fine sense of space, but is also idiosyncratic and enforces a particular interpretive slant on the motets. The renditions themselves are quite meticulous, showing many details of the music, but are also rather stiff & sterile at times. This ensemble, although it continues to record notable repertory in quality interpretation, seems to be losing its warmth. The decision to prefer this interpretation to the previous one by Helga Weber is a difficult one. The performances are very similar in conception, both in their use of instruments and in their overall pace. Van Nevel does portray more details and a greater sense of space, while Weber has the warmer & more organic style. The decision ultimately boils down to one thing: While Weber's fine set is on 3 CDs (including other items, and the chants on which the motets are based), Van Nevel's is on a single CD. It will also serve to make these works better known, and already seems to have attracted interest from the general public. This is surely a very good thing, although somewhat surprising to me, as this music is rather more complicated than that which the public usually embraces.

When Kevin Moll's recording of sacred music from the Apt & Ivrea codices appeared, it was the only one available, and the first (aside from a few tracks) since a relatively obscure Arion LP. This is complicated music, frequently neglected, but nonetheless intriguing on both historical & musical grounds. The isorhythmic counterpoint can be quite animated rhythmically, and some of the harmonic ideas therein are rather unique as well. Suddenly there are real options for hearing it... recordings by the Clerks' Group, Diabolus in Musica, and others. After Moll's, the most impressive program in terms of scope appeared toward the end of 2000 from the Cantica Symphonia ensemble of Italy.

Almisonis Melos
Latin Motets and Mass Fragments in the Ivrea Codex
Cantica Symphonia - Giuseppe Maletto
Opus 111 30-309

Besides the featured mass movements, this program includes motets by De Vitry and others. The interpretation itself is set apart by its use of instruments. Giuseppe Maletto does not engage in any sort of double-talk, but rather states that although evidence today tends to argue against instruments in sacred music of this era, the ensemble has simply chosen to use them anyway. This is in distinction to the group's earlier Dufay program, which argues that instrumental support would have been common during Dufay's Italian residency. At any rate, my main concern is the music itself, and this rendition manages to convey an intimacy which some others lack. The instruments serve to hold these frequently difficult pieces together and make intonation easier for the singers. The result is an appealing one, insightful and evocative. The program is what really makes this selection, as it is packed with fine & varied music from beginning to end.

It is difficult to believe that there are so few programs devoted exclusively to Landini, and in fact his anniversary (1997) passed with very little fanfare. This is a composer who has always been held in the highest esteem, one who has a cadence named for him, and one who appeals reliably to specialists and general listeners alike. Although it did not make a big splash, a fine & unassuming program did appear in 2000.

Landini: Ballate
Camerata Nova / Ensemble Chominciamento di Gioia - Luigi Taglioni
Tactus 321201

Perhaps I put too much pressure on this release, as I had enjoyed this (combined) group's previous recording quite a bit. The interpretation does have a nice sophistication to it, and an enjoyable sense of subtlety. The songs are well-chosen, and well-performed, but perhaps lack some of the dynamism for which I had hoped. These songs have an explosive quality about them, one which often seems only latent, but can leap into sound in the best work of such groups as Micrologus. While they might not be of that caliber yet, this Italian ensemble does continue to impress, and we can await their next release with some anticipation.

Recordings of English mass cycles from the 1400s are starting to reappear in discographies, and indeed there is a fine variety of music from this era in Continental sources awaiting recording. Whether English or otherwise, there are many mass cycles (and motets) of the 1400s which can compete in quality with those of the more famous names whose music is recorded more often. The music of Regis named above is a good example. Although not as dynamic as Regis or Faugues, Frye is the most distinguished English-Burgundian composer of the mid-1400s, and so his finest mass has now been recorded twice.

Brussels 5557
Frye: Missa Flos Regalis / Plummer: Missa Sine Nomine
Clerks' Group - Edward Wickham
Signum 015

Much like Van Nevel's Dufay recording, the choice of this recording over that by the Hilliard Ensemble is not as easy as it could be. Both ensembles are rather monochromatic, and sometimes lack for articulation. The Clerks' Group is working with the greater experience at this point, having recorded Ockeghem's complete masses and other works of the era, and so does have the better command, even if does not always show. Choosing between the two interpretations is again accomplished by other factors, in this case the intriguing 3-voice setting by Plummer which is included on the present program. Although not of the stature of Frye's setting, this is a good example of the variety still lurking in manuscripts from this period, a period prior to the homogenization of European technique in the wake of the printing press. Finally, I should note that the Clerks' final Ockeghem program will not make its way to me until January, although I did discover (while preparing this write-up) that it appeared in November in some parts of the world. Note that it was actually recorded prior to the present recording, but will not appear until my 2001 listing. The Clerks' Group continues to make the most recordings by number of my favorite music.

Instrumental Music c.1600

Until a couple of items in the preceding section appeared late in the year, it looked as though the present section would form the majority of the listing this year. Regular readers will know that an interest in the instrumental music of the Renaissance-Baroque transition has been a constant for me. Indeed, I insist that the volume of this repertory on this year's list does not represent an increase in personal interest or change in priorities. Rather, it is simply the result of an impressive outpouring of superb recordings in the genre. Although the title of my listing has been "Medieval & Renaissance," let it be clear that the title is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive. An interest in instrumental music throughout the 16th century and into its continuous extension in the early 17th century cannot be swept aside by mere titles.

Recordings in this genre for 2000 were impressive indeed, with definite landmarks appearing in multiple areas. Technique continues to improve, more repertory appears, and interest generally rises. This is one area where I feel confident that the best recordings will be immediately appealing to partisans of more mainstream classical music. These items fit neatly into catalogs, and do not require any extreme re-hearing to orient oneself. They are, however, rather earlier than most of the popular Baroque music, and so somewhat different, more free in their approach to form and harmony. Whether a single year can again produce such a fine listing of music within such a limited span of time remains to be seen, but we should take advantage of it while we can.

For all its stature and celebrity admirers (e.g. Gould), Gibbons' keyboard music earns little in the way of dedicated recordings. This music has a very unassuming quality about it, solid yet subtle. It is also quite vocal in its phrasing, yet abstract in content. Some of Gibbons' best pieces are rather short, yet somehow suggestive of far more. I was nonplussed by the heavy-handed approach of Richard Egarr of a couple of years ago (the first all-Gibbons harpsichord recital on CD, amazingly), and although I did enjoy Laurent Stewart's half-Gibbons program, I was looking for more. At last, there is a thoroughly recommendable harpsichord recital devoted to Gibbons.

Gibbons: Music for Harpsichord & Virginals
James Johnstone
AS&V "Gaudeamus" 191

I am not familiar with James Johnstone otherwise; apparently he has played in ensemble with the Gabrieli Players and King's Consort, among others. He does a wonderful job with this solo program, however. For unknown reasons, this recording was deleted from the US catalog almost as soon as it appeared, and seems not to have attracted any attention (other than mine) whatsoever. It is a first-rate program and performance, and a must for anyone interested in harpsichord music.

Another closely related lament was the lack of a systematic survey of Gibbons' consort music. Although Gibbons' consort music has appeared in several places, often in fine performance, a comprehensive survey adds a nice sense of closure. This is also very fine music, sometimes more public than the keyboard music, but of singular quality as well. In the liner notes for this release, Gibbons is described as a "musicians' musician," which may be true, but this early chamber music has earned an increased following with the work of Fretwork et al.

Gibbons: Royal Fantasies
Music for Viols, Volume 1
Concordia - Mark Levy
Metronome 1033

Concordia has been on the viol consort scene for several years now, although none of their programs had really impressed me, even if their playing was more or less on par with that of other ensembles. They changed that in a big way here, by doing a systematic survey of some of my favorite music. The performances have a nice elegance to them, with a good sense of melody and ornament, as well as an intimate overall sound. I might have preferred an earthier, more aggressive style at times, but the present performances are certainly worthy. Hopefully the second volume will appear soon.

Continuing in the world of English consort music, William Lawes' music has been receiving increased attention. Together with Gibbons', his is probably the most singular output. His sense of harmony is almost entirely his own, with many strange sequences and a flair for the dramatic. Lawes' music has a sense of Beethovenian originality about it, except that any followers he might have had were eliminated by the English Civil War and his death in it. I do not enjoy everything Lawes wrote unreservedly, but do take note of new recordings, especially the following one.

Lawes: Consorts in four and five parts
Channel Classics 15698

Although they have attracted more attention, like Concordia, Phantasm has been doing less appealing programs, whether mixed items or fringe repertory. That is not the case here, as they follow some of Lawes' best consort sets with some of his others. Performance-wise, I have to say, I believe this is the best recording of viol consort music to date. Technique, energy, color, ensemble coordination... all are a step above. They remind me here of some of the great string quartets of the early 1900s. It is amazing to see how far consort technique has come in the past 10 years. The performances 10 years ago were pretty good, but now they are so much better. I would like to see Phantasm followup this program with one of Lawes' six-part consorts.

Among the instrumental works which mark the transition from Renaissance to Baroque style, those in Italy are relatively poorly understood, especially given their volume and centrality to the process. One composer of this era who continues to appeal to me on an individual basis is Biagio Marini, and indeed Marini's appeal is making its way to the general public. His discography was essentially transformed this year.

Marini: Affetti musicali
Il Viaggio Musicale
Chandos Chaconne 0660

This is a recording of Marini's first publication (Venice, 1617), one which still reflects many Renaissance ideas. Perhaps the most comparable example would be Frescobaldi's canzoni (1628, 1634), and indeed the present ensemble gained a place in my consciousness with their their fine second recording of those canzoni. At the time, I felt they were the most accomplished ensemble in the area of mixed wind & string Italian chamber music, and their move to the higher-profile Chandos label seems to confirm this stature. Although the pieces have definite similarities, Marini's writing is more eloquently straightforward than the frequently bizarre twists of Frescobaldi's, and indeed transparency of thought is one of Marini's virtues (he, like Liszt, also took the route of young virtuoso to the priesthood late in life). The present recording is actually not a clear choice, as an earlier recording by Conserto Vago of the same program is also accomplished, albeit obscure. Indeed, I have long enjoyed that recording, but the present one is somewhat better. While Conserto Vago emphasizes the embryonic trio sonata quality in Marini's first publication, Il Viaggio Musicale emphasizes more of the Renaissance style, and has a consequently greater sense of contrapuntal solidity.

However, the above was not the most important Marini recording the year. Although the music becomes rather stylistically late, even for this instrumental portion of my survey, Marini's work to define the violin sonata cannot be ignored. When I asked myself, years ago, "Where did Corelli's trio sonatas come from?" I eventually settled on Marini as the most appealingly pivotal pre-Corelli figure. Of course, other Italians have similar resumes, but Marini's music spoke to me more strongly. His position as a violinist-composer was made largely by his Opus 8, and at last we have a fine recording by which to enjoy it.

Marini: Curiose invenzioni dall'opera ottava
Monica Huggett / Galatea - Paul Beier
Stradivarius 33549

Paul Beier's group had already done a Marini program of some quality, although it emphasized the vocal works, in which I have less interest. The present program moves decisively to the violin music, and does so with distinguished guest Monica Huggett as soloist. These are unquestionably some of the finest early violin sonatas (and what were at the time closely related forms), and this is an interpretation of magnificent stature. Any readers more accustomed to later music should immediately obtain this recording, as it fits very nicely into a Corelli mold, while showing some intriguing traits of earlier style. Manze's recording of Marini, although welcome for the obvious reason of exposure, has been something of an embarrassment to me (as an advocate of Marini). It seems to have no sense for the music, projecting a rather morose quality on the sunny Marini, and emphasizes a grotesque virtuosity at the expense of substance and lucidity. There is nothing of that sort from Huggett & Beier, and so here the music is sympathetically performed in an affecting rendition.

Even more than Gibbons, Giovanni Gabrieli's music received mainstream attention prior to the full-scale HIP revival. His canzoni continue to be popular on modern brass, yet are surprisingly little-recorded on period instruments, aside from tracks here or there. Again, that is changing, first with Clemencic's unusual recital on recorders, then a more mundane disc on Hyperion, and now with what must be seen as the most colorful and expressive recording of Gabrieli's instrumental music to date.

Gabrieli: Sonate e Canzoni
Per concertar con l'organo
Concerto Palatino - Bruce Dickey & Charles Toet
Harmonia Mundi 901688

Concerto Palatino has long been a leader in this repertory, and now has tackled a recorded program of what may be its central works. The sense of space in San Petronio is superb, as is the articulation of the music. Gabrieli's music is only somewhat to my taste, as much of it tends toward the showy and merely virtuosic. However, there are certainly some interesting musical ideas expressed, especially in the posthumous (1615) publication with its better sense of counterpoint. The present program mixes more showy pieces with more musically sophisticated ones, but the performance so exceeds previous performances in conception & expressiveness that the former can be forgiven.

Happy 2001!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb