Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2002

It is somewhat difficult to find the proper tone for this year's survey. I have discussed my priorities in the past, and have also lamented the state of the recording industry, especially in terms of what is available in the United States. I was not able to select a record of the year available in the United States this year, which marks another milestone in that area.

Simply put, there were few interesting recordings in these genres released this past year. While 1999 could almost be described as an "embarrassment of riches," this year's list is not very long. I do want to emphasize, though, that I have made no compromises, and that every recording listed is worthy of recognition. There was nothing making a big splash, but there were still a handful of wholly worthwhile new releases.

That said, let me just recap that I continue to prioritize repertory, and demand something new of a recording, whether in repertory or interpretation. Despite the slow year for recording releases, interpretations of medieval music continue to head in a positive direction. There is every reason for optimism on that point, even if financial considerations have made releasing interesting new recordings more difficult.

Record of the Year

The French "Diabolus in Musica" ensemble has been no stranger to this listing, and this year saw them release another fine interpretation. While the ensemble has been known for Ars Antiqua music, it had tried its hand at Ars Nova music too, with at least some success. Here it moves strongly into the 1300s, and even the 1400s, by focusing on the English music of the period. The greater continuity with Ars Antiqua style provides a better grounding in the ensemble's interpretive strengths, and in turn provides an intriguing perspective on Ars Nova interpretation more generally.

Honi soit qui mal y pense!
Polyphonies des chapelles royales anglaises (1328-1410)
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Alpha Productions 022

While this program does not feature an individual work of any particular scope, it does include a strong overall selection of fine music, ranging from various obscure & fragmentary English sources of the early 1300s to the Old Hall Manuscript of c.1410. The program is well-chosen to illustrate the continuing English conductus style of the 1300s, as well as its stylistic connections with the emerging motet. The resulting perspective on English descant style as it emerged onto the world stage in the Dunstaple era is particularly worthwhile. Diabolus in Musica also challenges some assumptions on the rhythmic angularity of some Ars Nova constructs, although it does so only in sound, not in writing. It is difficult to argue with the result, as the interpretive success is grounded directly in the sensible connection between sonorities & phrasing of the Ars Nova and the Dunstaple era. The isorhythm is tamed in this way.

Next to other interpretations of this music, of which there have been relatively few for the early part of this repertory, the grittiness & sonorousness of Diabolus in Musica's Ars Antiqua-based style serves very well to highlight the richly consonant nature of English music of this period, a nature so well-attested in contemporary sources. Some rather rhythmically animated pieces are included, but the bulk of the program - especially in the conductus - subsumes that rhythmic impetus into a smoother style. That combination is what basically defines English developments of the era, developments which are well-illustrated here. Energy & phrasing are excellent, and the short pieces are given a convincing overall shaping.

Honorable Mention

Cantilena Antiqua is another ensemble which had drawn some attention (at least from me) for their earlier work, but which had worked primarily with Ars Antiqua music. In their case, it was not polyphony, however, but rather plainchant sub-styles and some secular monophony. Again, I had always admired their sound, even if their monophonic material was not of the highest interest. This year, in teaming with another ensemble, they have moved into the Ars Nova and polyphony.

Ballate e Madrigali
At the Court of Paolo Guinigi (sec. XV)
Ensemble Cantilena Antiqua / Concentus Lucensis - Stefano Albarello
Tactus 400002

Superficially, the program is a fairly typical late Italian Ars Nova program, featuring works by Landini & Ciconia. However, it also includes a set of masterful (and previously unknown) polyphonic instrumental pieces by Johannes Octoboni (fl.1400s), evidently a composer of notable contrapuntal intellect. The named works, referenced as in the Faenza Codex, are listed as "untexted" & unattributed in most Faenza inventories, adding a bit of mystery to this release, especially considering that Octoboni is described in the notes as "the most illustrious musical presence of the late middle ages" (with respect to Lucca, which is the theme of the program) while not even possessing a New Grove entry!

Unfortunately, the polyphonic performance ends up blunting what had been the most notable interpretive strength of the ensemble: Stefano Albarello's razor voice. Here, the instrumental playing emerges more as a strength, giving an overall liveliness & polish to the production.

Certainly the most provocative medieval recording of the year was released by well-known ensemble Mala Punica, which made a move to the Harmonia Mundi label. Recorder player and director Pedro Memelsdorff has a rather different cast now, but continues to exalt in both the most complicated motivic & intonational schemes as well as the most bizarre double-talk. While his latest effort cannot be dismissed, it cannot be easily embraced either.

Narcisso Speculando
Madrigaux de Paolo da Firenze
Mala Punica - Pedro Memelsdorff
Harmonia Mundi 901732

Paolo da Firenze (c.1355-1436/7) was virtually unknown prior to this recording, and his significance remains difficult to assess. Claimed as something of a transitional figure akin to Ciconia or Matteo de Perugia, his influence is difficult to gauge. Of course, although he has long been recognized in our time, Matteo de Perugia may have been virtually without influence too. Memelsdorff produces a finely nuanced interpretation, again adopting what seem to be Baroque sensibilities, and underscored as such by his strange claims regarding connections to later madrigal styles. The motivic nature of Paolo da Firenze's style suits the ensemble's ostinato emphasis well, and serves to produce perhaps their most characteristic production to date. The ultimate significance of this recording will probably not be decided for years.

Sequels and series

The past year also saw the release of a couple of notable second volumes, and these easily warrant inclusion on the present list, just as their companion volumes had earlier.

The Tallis Scholars released the second half of Gombert's full Magnificat cycle, an obvious pairing with the first half released last year. Gombert's Magnificat cycle is one of the most notable pieces of music of the immediate post-Josquin generation, illustrating both contrapuntal mastery & delicacy of line. It richly deserved to be recorded in full.

Gombert: Magnificats 5-8
Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 038

Since Gimell does not provide recording dates (a serious lapse, in my opinion), I do not know if this recording comes from the same sessions as the previous one, but it certainly might. There is nothing in personnel or interpretive style to contradict such a guess. The interpretations are essentially the same, showing good command of the style, in typical Tallis Scholars sonority. The energy remains high, and the overall set can only be considered a triumph. Why it could not be released at one time, perhaps at 2-for-1 price, is unknown.

Also released in 2002 was another volume of William Lawes' consort music by Phantasm. I wrote of the first volume, released in 2000, that it set new standards for consort playing. While the second volume (which was indeed recorded a couple of years after the first) does not make such a splash, it continues to build on Phantasm's high standards for ensemble coordination, energy & color.

Lawes: Consorts in six parts
Channel Classics 17498

Lawes' consort music remains quirky & interesting, and now we have the option of hearing it well-played by both Phantasm & Fretwork. It is difficult to decide whether to prefer the 5- or 6-part consorts, as each piece seems to have its own sets of strengths & weaknesses. Lawes will surely remain fresh in this way for some time to come, and here we have an interpretation & production with no drawbacks.

More instrumental music

Regular readers of my reviews will know that, as a sort of separate interest alongside medieval and early Renaissance polyphony, I have a distinct interest in the abstract instrumental music of c.1600. This was the first body of "real" instrumental music, and I hear in its eschewal of words, something of a rebirth for medieval technique. One cannot hear anything specifically medieval in e.g. Lawes, but the general colorful abstraction is there.

Similar remarks apply to Trabaci, another of the more quirky & individual composers of the period. Previously, his keyboard music had appeared only in anthologies, but this year, Naxos finally released the first volume in a complete survey. The recordings had been promised for years, but have been released only now, and on a limited basis.

Trabaci: Keyboard Music - Book I
Sergio Vartolo
Naxos 8.553550-2 (3 CDs)

Trabaci's music possesses an intriguing sense of instrumental rhetoric, as well as a keen sense of interval as derived from the tuning experiments in Naples at the time. Here, Vartolo argues for him as the "the first Baroque composer," an assessment essentially impossible to confirm. Nonetheless, it makes for a fun argument. Trabaci is perhaps the clearest predecessor to Frescobaldi, but adopts a more rigorous contrapuntal style, even in his toccatas.

Whereas Trabaci had previously languished without a dedicated volume, he received another survey this year, from Michèle Dévérité, and Naxos is already releasing his second book of keyboard music to start 2003. So there is suddenly plenty to hear. While possessing the obvious merit of being a full survey, the present set is also accomplished in its interpretive mastery. Vartolo has been recording music of this era regularly, and so comes to Trabaci with a fine background & sympathetic sense for the music. The result is quite satisfying, lucid in texture and cogently phrased. A variety of keyboard instruments is used, but that variety could have been supplemented by other instruments, as Trabaci's scores allow ensemble arrangements. The Naxos recording also lacks vividness, and does not come with any detailed discussion of the individual pieces. Nonetheless, it can only be considered a notable success.

Happy 2003!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb