Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2003

This year saw something of a rebound when it came to releases of medieval and early Renaissance polyphony, and seemingly in the classical music industry as a whole. While obtaining European recordings in the United States continues to be something of a challenge, most items on this list are more generally available. That was not by explicit design, but is presumably a happy coincidence for the reader.

On a more personal note, this is the tenth year for which I have formally selected a Recording of the Year. Readers are encouraged to consult previous writeups for context regarding how selections are made.

The items on this year's listing all have distinct merit, but are also rather evenly matched. There is essentially an "arc" from one to the next, rather than categories into which they can be readily placed, as in some previous years. I will consequently proceed directly with a rundown.

Recording of the Year

Pierre de la Rue has long been under-represented on recording, although that has been changing. Interpretations of his music often have difficulty balancing its small-scale lyrical subtleties against larger formal concerns, and given the relative lack of overtly ear-catching gestures in this finely chiseled music, La Rue's following has been slow to form with non-specialists. This year saw a recording which, while not a significant upgrade over some of the best items already found in La Rue's discography, is sure to help raise public interest in his music.

La Rue: Missa de Sancta Cruce / De Quadris: Lamentations
Clerks' Group - Edward Wickham
AS&V "Gaudeamus" 307

Whereas it was rather easy to be critical of the Clerks' Group's early attempts at late 15th century music, they continue to show an earnest desire to progress as an ensemble and to build upon their successes with further study & experimentation. Although the rather prolific pace of their own discography mandates less time spent on a particular project than might be desirable, and still leads to some uneven issues, there are also notable successes. Their first recording devoted to La Rue is just such a success, capturing the lyricism & formal drive of his music together in one of his finest large-scale previously-unrecorded pieces. Although balance problems continue to plague this ensemble, related partly to their continued (and laudable) experiments with reading directly from parts, the overall composure of this interpretation makes it one of the most accomplished to appear. La Rue's motets have been recorded before, but are a worthy addition to the program. The Quadris Lamentations are forgettable, however.


Continuing the trend of established ensembles working & improving their command of c.1500 polyphony, a notable recording devoted to Josquin also appeared this year. Whereas the A Sei Voci series of Josquin's masses had established a certain level of quality, it was only a matter of time before one or more of those masses was released in a better interpretation by someone else. Even in the case of Josquin, a composer with hundreds of dedicated recordings, there are still many ways to improve upon existing interpretations, and that is what we continue to see. Such issues revolve around increased experience & command, especially as younger musicians are able to hear & internalize the pioneering efforts of older musicians.

Pomerium - Alexander Blachly
Glissando 043

Although the featured Missa Hercules dux Ferrarie is not necessarily a personal favorite, Pomerium may have produced the most accomplished recorded interpretation of a major c.1500 mass cycle to date. The combination of lyricism, rhetorical gesture, and structural integrity is indeed impressive. That level of accomplishment is also found in the motets, especially Ut phebi radiis. Regarding the chansons, it is amazing that a program dedicated to this music has not appeared in several years, and in this case, I continue to consider a medium-sized choir of this type to be too inflexible for c.1500 secular songs. There is some good singing here, but we are still awaiting a truly satisfying recording of Josquin's songs. That said, the mass cycle does raise standards, and should prove to provide one more rung on an ascending ladder of quality.

Wrapping up the year's best releases of c.1500 polyphony, the A:N:S Chorus returns with a third issue in their Obrecht series. Although this program is not as striking as in their previous Obrecht releases, the addition of two more previously unrecorded masses is critical to a developing understanding of how Obrecht's works present themselves in sound. Only a short time ago, he was even more neglected than La Rue, but now we can begin to perceive some "standards" of Obrecht's idiom. In this case, the Missa De Sancto Donatiano is an uneven work, based more closely on the style of Ockeghem, whereas the Missa Sicut spina rosam takes a similarly motivated style to a more masterful level. The latter is sure to become a favorite in Obrecht's oeuvre.

Obrecht: Missa De Sancto Donatiano / Missa Sicut spina rosam
A:N:S Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32192

The A:N:S Chorus continues to be one of the most prepared and energetic ensembles performing this repertory, and the present release does nothing to change that impression.

Moving to somewhat earlier mass cycles, Walter Frye is starting to build a real following on disc, with another fine recording of two (one conjecturally attributed) of his melodious masses appearing this year. Whereas the featured item here, the Missa Summe trinitati, is less sumptuous than the better-known Missa Flos regalis, it is highly appealing in its own way.

Northerne Wynde
Music of Walter Frye
Ferrara Ensemble - Crawford Young
Marc Aurel Edition 20018

This release also marks the entrance of the Ferrara Ensemble into the realm of large-scale sacred music recordings, something they accomplish admirably. Although their style can be considered typical of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, they execute it with mastery. This is the most clearly articulated recording yet to be devoted to Frye's masses.

In the era of Frye, of course Dufay was the best-known composer, and while some masses of the era are secularly attributed to Dufay, others are not. Some masses have been subsequently rejected as Dufay's, and others have been added to his oeuvre, but one early conjectural attribution which remains relatively unexamined is the Missa Puisque je vis. Although we might never know the truth of its authorship, the cycle is of some definite merit.

Dufay: Missa "Puisque je vis" / Motets
Binchois Consort - Andrew Kirkman
Hyperion 67368

The Binchois Consort is another group of which I have been highly critical in the past, even more so in their case. Such criticisms were based upon the wandering pitch resulting from their approach to intonation. However, here they seem to have solved some of these issues, and the residual attention to detail between lines & motifs gives their interpretation a tightly kaleidoscopic quality. Although the characteristically English sonority of their voices is not really to my taste, if they can continue to build upon these interpretive strides, the Binchois Consort could provide a new level of intonational detail in the interpretation of mid-15th century sacred polyphony.

Moving to a later era, and into the realm of instrumental music, a series of variations by Festa may have been the most surprising discovery of the year. Given new evidence regarding the attribution of pieces once thought to be lost, this music becomes some of the earliest "learned" instrumental ensemble polyphony, and does so in volume. Although not as compelling as the best music of this era, there is a wealth of ideas here, a virtual encyclopedia of Renaissance counterpoint.

Festa: 32 Variations sur "La Spagna"
Huelgas Ensemble - Paul van Nevel
Harmonia Mundi 801799 (SACD)

The Huelgas Ensemble is another established group which continues to refine its interpretations. Whereas the historical basis for the instrumental combinations they often use may be debatable, the increasing facility with which they develop characteristic sonorities from them can only be seen as a blessing. This recording is also one of the first of music this early to appear in the SACD format, in this case readable by standard CD players too.

Presumably next year will see some less experienced performers find their way onto this yearly summary, as they have in the past. That this did not occur in 2003 is something I noticed only upon concluding this writeup. Therefore, let me please extend a general greeting to all younger musicians thinking about entering this field: We need you too!

And happy 2004 to all!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb