Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2001

It can be too easy to discuss the previous years' trends at length, or my criteria for recordings, consequently failing to get to the meat of the writeup. Let me refer interested readers to the previous years' discussions for a variety of context, and get more quickly to the point here.

In a nutshell, I am first a repertory-oriented person. A fabulous recording of repertory which is not especially compelling to me, or which already possesses a better recording, will not find its way onto this list. Moreover, the title of these awards is not prescriptive, but rather descriptive. I do not claim to judge all music equally, and indeed I have a fairly restrictive view of Renaissance music, mostly as an extension of medieval music, centered upon the fifteenth century. In other words, whereas all medieval polyphony and secular monophony are fair game for this survey, many significant areas of Renaissance music simply are not. Those that are, however, are points of emphasis.

Obtaining new recordings in the United States continues to become more difficult, and so my "released in 2001" criterion actually becomes least applicable to the US (where I live). Nearly half of the recordings on this list were not released in the US in 2001, although half of those are slated for release in 2002. They were all released somewhere in 2001. Strangely, I find that Canada currently has the most comprehensive & timely release catalog, although I more regularly seek recordings in the UK & France. Some of these recordings came as promotional copies; some were purchased. While not feeling any prejudice between the two after hearing them, it is true that I need a stronger reason to purchase a recording than to simply listen to a free copy. So, while I have not listened to every single recording within my preferred repertory, I have listened to every one which I thought might be appropriate for this list. Obviously, I could have overlooked something.

This year's list will feature a clear Record of the Year choice, and then honorable mention lists in three categories. I have ordered the recordings within the categories, but kept them distinct otherwise. The release of multiple significant sequels was a notable feature of 2001, and so items in the final section may be more valuable than those I have casually labeled "runners-up."

Record of the Year

Alexander Agricola (1446-1506) was a unique voice among composers of the post-Ockeghem generation. Whereas Obrecht, and then Josquin, pioneered more rational formal planning of larger structures, together with open textures and clearer harmonic direction, Agricola showed little interest in rationalizing musical construction. His musical imagination was one of the most impressive of the period, illustrated by his famous set of variations on Hayne's De tous biens plaine, and his sense of large-scale construction exemplified the medieval virtue of variety. Agricola's mass cycles are consequently some of the most far-flung and intricate ever produced, and also some of the most difficult to follow. His motivic transformations can be so oblique that his work is singularly ill-suited to being presented in extracts (as the Huelgas Ensemble did), and so a release of full mass cycles this year has been particularly revelatory. This is only the second recording to contain a full mass cycle by Agricola (after a Musical Heritage Society LP directed by McNeil Robinson).

Agricola: Missa Malheur me bat / Missa In minen sin
Ars Nova Secunda Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32011

Although Agricola's "irrational" style of counterpoint, building as it does on the work of Ockeghem by becoming even denser, will likely displease the modernist, it becomes increasingly compelling for its unique musical sense and ultimately its ability to build a convincingly unified work. Moreover, Agricola's distinctive style provides much-needed perspective on the clearer textures of Obrecht et al. in the late 1400s. Among the eight surviving mass cycles, to which a volume was dedicated by Petrucci in 1504, the Missa Malheur me bat is among Agricola's most polished. The Missa In minen sin, on the other hand, even missing a Kyrie, is among the longest cycles of the era. It presents many unusual features of both rhythm & counterpoint, giving it something of a sphinx-like quality. In either case, Agricola's dense musical logic is distinctly his own. His music simply has more, and more oblique, motivic connections than anyone else's of the period.

The work of the ANS Chorus will need no introduction to regular readers of my yearly reviews. Indeed, the group won my Record of the Year last year, as well. In hindsight, I might have chosen differently last year, so as to avoid having the same winner twice in a row, but this year, there is simply no competition. This recording was absolutely revelatory, and if anything, the performance style continues to improve. It is energetic, clear in both texture and formal outline, and tremendously well-prepared in its sense of melodic interrelation and motivic development. Agricola's music demands this level of preparedness, and so it is easy to believe that a lesser performance could not have succeeded in bringing it so definitively into the consciousness of even Franco-Flemish specialists. Judgment of Agricola's music has not been uniformly kind over the years, but in this rendition, after investing our own attention, we can hear that it really does work. Record of the Year credentials do not get much better than that.


Although Machaut's mass has been recorded at least as often as any major medieval work, it continues to pose an interesting test for interpreters. After more than twenty complete recordings of the cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce anything of more than incremental interest. However, the present release managed to provide a notable new perspective on this popular favorite.

Machaut: La Messe de Nostre Dame
Clemencic Consort / Ensemble Nova / Polifonica Lucchese e Capella Santa Cecilia - René Clemencic
Arte Nova 85289

Clemencic has long been involved with medieval music, and even after thirty-five years, he continues to make interpretive strides and seek new perspectives. This is a powerful, in-your-face performance, which really packs a punch. It contains quite simply the best, most declamatory versions of the lengthy Gloria & Credo which I have heard. Although it is somewhat rough around the edges at times, the resulting energy more than compensates. Indeed, it is a refreshing change from some of the overly smooth & bloodless interpretations which appear. The remainder of the program consists of an attempt to place the mass into a broader cultural context, rather than a liturgical context. While not a bad idea, many of the other tracks are not of particular interest. This is also a budget recording, making it a great value.

Interest in Machaut continues apace, and other new programs are welcome. Aside from a systematic survey, it would be difficult to identify any one program as particularly more worthwhile than others, but the Ferrara Ensemble has done a fine job selecting one of high merit.

Mercy ou mort
Machaut: Chansons & motets d'amour
Ensemble Ferrara - Crawford Young
Arcana 305

The main feature here is the many all-vocal motets, but other portions of the program are also highly enjoyable, including those with instruments. The Ferrara Ensemble has an increasing amount of experience with this and somewhat later repertory, and it shows here in an interpretation of high polish.

Among the curiosities of the past year was the issue of multiple programs from El Cancionero de Montecassino, including one by Savall. I have yet to hear any reason for this sudden attention, but I certainly cannot complain. El Cancionero de Montecassino contains some wonderfully vibrant mid-fifteenth century music in multiple languages. Among these releases, the present was easily my favorite.

Napoli Aragonese
Musica profana per la corte aragonese napoletana: secolo XV
Opus 111 30-215

This performance exemplifies Micrologus' style. It is earthy, lively, colorful, and natural. The vocal & instrumental tones are among the most pleasing around, and there is none of the self-consciousness which sometimes plagues other interpreters. While Micrologus does not always record programs of the highest interest, this one makes for an easy choice.

More original repertory

Gombert's music continues to receive increasing attention from performers and listeners alike, including this year. Gombert is known first for his extremely dense counterpoint in the post-Josquin generation, a direction which was seldom followed by subsequent composers. In that sense, Gombert represents one point of conclusion to the development of Franco-Flemish polyphony. Among his works, his Magnificat cycle stands out as perhaps his most beautiful and polished, although (because?) it is not written as densely as much of his music.

Gombert: Magnificats 1-4
Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 037

The Tallis Scholars bring their trademark clarity to this music, and it comes with none of the technical misunderstandings which have plagued some of their interpretations. The strident-yet-disinterested tone characteristic of the ensemble is not one I enjoy, but the clarity & command here more than make up for it. This is not one of their best renditions, relying as it does on nonexistent English influences, but it is a very welcome program. A second volume, completing the cycle, is to appear in 2002.

The 500th anniversary of the first printed music in Western history largely went unnoticed this year, but two recordings did appear from Petrucci's famous print. Besides the historical significance, the music itself is also of interest, cultivating one direction in the post-Burgundian secular style. Indeed, it seems that Petrucci started by publishing something of a retrospective of the later fifteenth century. Most of this music was printed without words, and although there have been arguments over the years, it appears that it was intended for instrumental performance. Along with chanson transcriptions, it features what we might call an early form of virtuoso divisions.

Petrucci: Harmonice Musices Odhecaton
Harmonia Mundi USA 907291

Although Fretwork is somewhat out of their element performing this music, seeing as it is a century and a Channel removed from their focus on English consort music, they give a quality workmanlike performance. I have a definite preference for the homogenous string consort, and it is used to fine effect here.

Pierre de la Rue continues to be relatively neglected among leading composers of the Josquin generation, especially for his secular music. The present selection is the first to include more than a few of his songs, and it goes on to illustrate a wide range of intriguing material. La Rue essentially wrote the last generation of Burgundian songs, continuing to use forms perfected by Binchois & Ockeghem, and then adding some innovations directly within that tradition. This program is consequently of high interest, and very welcome.

Pierre de la Rue
Chansons from the Album of Marguerite of Austria
Corvina Consort - Zoltán Kalmanovits
Hungaroton 32018

The performance is of adequate quality, although it lacks the dynamism of others in similar repertory. This group first recorded the Lessons of Lassus, and did so with a wonderful gravity, but here the lugubrious tone can sometimes work against them. Despite this problem, there are certainly some wonderful sections.

Sequels and series

As noted, the present heading is especially full this year.

One sequel of clear note is a followup to the highly successful first recording by Red Byrd devoted to Leonin. The present sequel seemed to have no particular reason to exist, and in fact the liner notes almost entirely recycle those for the first issue, without indication of why another volume would be worthwhile. That said, the second volume does go on to have its own distinct merit.

Magister Leoninus - 2
Sacred Music from 12th century Paris
Red Byrd / YorVox - John Potter & Richard Wistreich
Hyperion 67289

Indeed Red Byrd's performance style continues to advance, particularly in the area of sustaining the lower lines of this two-part music. Their first recording pioneered some ideas in this direction, based on more recent scholarship indicating that they were not held throughout, and here those ideas receive far more polish. The present rendition is such an improvement over the first that it renders it superfluous. Whether this is indeed the purpose of the second issue, or if it is part of a larger plan to record more of this music, is unknown. This is easily the most notable interpretation of Ars Antiqua polyphony in some time.

A Sei Voci's continuing survey of Josquin's masses is probably the major c.1500-oriented survey of our time. This year, they released a program absolutely critical to an understanding of Josquin's stylistic development, the two l'homme armé masses. The first mass (second on this program) shows Josquin working somewhat uncomfortably in the older style (perhaps comparable to some of Agricola's writing, in some sense, but without the same panache), while the second mass shows Josquin's own unique synthesis fully. Although I have a certain appreciation for the even more economical masses which followed, the Missa l'homme armé sexti toni & Missa Ave maris stella have become my two favorite Josquin masses.

Josquin: Messes de l'homme armé
Ensemble A Sei Voci - Bernard Fabre-Garrus
Astrée 8809

Although I do not agree with every aspect of A Sei Voci's interpretation, here or elsewhere, they are clearly the most representative available of mainstream scholarship and performance practice. This alone serves to command attention, and while the singers can become a bit self-indulgent, the entire program is presented in lucid & compelling fashion. It was also suggested in print that this is the final issue of the series, a suggestion I was unable to conclusively confirm or deny. If so, that would certainly be unfortunate. If anything, recordings of Josquin's music continue to lag his stature.

Also appearing this year (at least in the US) were the last issues in the Clerks' Group's series of Ockeghem recordings for AS&V. First, let me clarify the end of this series. The final item released, containing the Missa Ecce ancilla Domini, was actually the first recorded, originally on the Proud Sound label and reissued by AS&V. In addition, a recording released last year, featuring the Missa l'homme armé, was recorded at the same time as the present issue. Nonetheless, this is conceptually the final issue in the series, at least in some sense.

Ockeghem: Missa Au travail suis / Missa Sine Nomine a5
The Clerks' Group - Edward Wickham
AS&V Gaudeamus 215

Ockeghem's Missa Au travail suis is one of his best shorter mass cycles, based closely on one of my favorite songs. The Clerks' Group continues to develop their performance style, to the point that this issue is comparable to some of the best available Ockeghem performances. Although their early attempts were rather disjointed and uncompelling, it is a testament to this group's character that they did not rest upon premature admiration as cause for continuing mediocrity. In addition, the progress of this series, with interpretations continually improving in detail & understanding, apparently serves to parallel the public's own appreciation for Ockeghem's music. The stereotypically English vocal tone is not to my liking, but I can appreciate any interpretation without technical problems. The Clerks' Group also released a recording of one of Josquin's minor masses this year, and should continue to release worthy programs regularly.

The first volume of Concordia's complete recording of Gibbons' consort output appeared on last year's list, and so the second volume is something of an appendix. It does, however, contain some of Gibbons' finest music, especially the six-part consorts, and so is of distinct value. This completes Gibbons' consort output.

Gibbons: Go from my window
Music for Viols, Volume 2
Concordia - Mark Levy
Metronome 1039

Recorded about a year-and-a-half after the first volume, the playing here is essentially the same. While not as forceful and dynamic as some of the recent issues from Phantasm & Fretwork, it retains a nice sense of grace & clarity. The included songs are not especially compelling, but do not detract from the impact of the consort selections. A complete survey of Gibbons' consort music was long overdue.

Continuing the spirit of series and sequels, although not properly a 2001 release, a sampler from my 1999 Record of the Year was released this year.

Keyboard Music by William Byrd
Davitt Moroney
Hyperion 66558

The original issue was a 7 CD set, making it impractical for many who might otherwise have been interested. Although the present selection is probably not precisely what I would have chosen, it does provide an opportunity to experience a range of sonorities from the complete set. Moroney's wonderful phrasing and sense for the music are evident.

Finally, let me reaffirm that despite any misgivings or criticism, each of the above certainly deserves to be listed among the best of the many recordings released under this category this year. While there were fewer true "impact" recordings than in past years, there were several releases which conveniently filled niches in need of filling. I have not eased my criteria, and all of these recordings are deserving of being listed according to those criteria, in any year.

Happy 2002!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb