Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2004

After various introductory discussions in previous years, I will simply get to the point, and offer my selections. Please see discussions from previous years, or my CD Remarks page for context.

Recording of the Year

Dominique Vellard and Ensemble Gilles Binchois established a standard for Notre Dame polyphony with their two previous recordings from the 1980s & 1990s. Returning to this repertory in the 2000s, including a re-recording of Beata viscera, they continue to set standards.

Pérotin & L'École de Notre Dame, 1160-1245
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Ambroisie 9947

The current recording adopts a more aggressive articulatory stance, and firmer diction. There is still an elegance to the phrasing & overall shaping, but any tentativeness is increasingly stripped away. The program itself is a good one, including some variety in form, starting with Perotin's massive Sederunt principes. Overall, including the programs, I cannot rate this disc as dramatically better than the earlier two, but it does represent a notable development of style. This remains pivotal repertory for Western music.

Honorable Mention

After A:N:S Chorus's revelatory recording of Agricola masses in 2001 (my Record of the Year for 2001), a second volume was certainly welcome. Although not as striking as the first release, the second continues to illustrate Agricola's extravagantly arbitrary approach to counterpoint.

Agricola: Missa Le serviteur / Missa Je ne demande
A:N:S Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32267

These masses are not as unusual as those recorded first by A:N:S, but present many points of interest in Agricola's labyrinthine style. The performance continues to provide good energy & clarity, although it does not really develop in cohesiveness from previous efforts for this group.

In a quirk of timing, little of Josquin's most prominent music has been re-recorded since further developments in the study of c.1500 polyphony during the boom of the late 1990s helped to refine interpretation. Among his mature mass cycles, there have been two such "modern" recordings, both of the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae. The second of these:

Josquin: Music for Ercole I d'Este
De Labyrintho - Walter Testolin
Stradivarius "Dulcimer" 33674

The natural comparison here is with the recording by Pomerium, cited in my 2003 review. In my estimation, the previously unknown De Labyrintho ensemble bests Pomerium slightly. I will simply quote myself from another source: "There is a fine sense of rhetorical form here, combined with contrapuntal momentum in such a way as to highlight the internal dialog between differing lines in the mass. Sonorities can be striking to the ear, and this ... ensemble displays evident passion for the music."

Although often grouped with them, Dufay's music presents different interpretive issues than the later works of Agricola & Josquin. Indeed, his major masses had received satisfying renditions well before recent inroads into the music of the later masters. However, there is always something else to try, and indeed a quirk similar to that affecting Josquin's discography had left the Missa Se la face ay pale without a satisfying rendition until now.

Dufay: Missa Se la face ay pale
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Alpha 051

Much as Gothic Voices did with La Rue in 1998 (cited in my 1998 review), Diabolus in Musica has approached Dufay's mass from the perspective of earlier music. Indeed their recent recording of English music of the 14th century (my Record of the Year in 2002), combined with their various recordings of French medieval music, provided an exemplary historical background for this mass. The result is wonderfully cohesive & articulate, rich & forceful in tone. The quality of the interpretation is such that it is only the relatively uneven nature of this transitional mass which prevents this recording from vaulting ahead of those above it.

Although I had some admiration for Adam de la Halle's 3-voice rondeaux, his theatrical music had made little impression. However, that changed this year with the adventurous interpretation of Micrologus.

Adam de la Halle: Le jeu de Robin et Marion
Zig-Zag Territoires 040602

Here, the monophonic songs are given a polyphonic treatment via accompaniment. An argument that this could or would have been done at the time need look no farther than the resulting performance, which is so lucid & compelling that it argues for itself without the intervention of words. This insight, and necessary command of the contrapuntal style of the 13th century, is combined with Micrologus' trademark energy & brilliant sound to create a landmark recording. Curiously, this was one of three recordings featuring Adam de la Halle to appear in close succession this year.

The unusual "measured" techniques of Claude Le Jeune represent a more than worthwhile island of originality in the realm of late Renaissance polyphony, and have been illustrated on recording relatively often at this point. However, Le Jeune's posthumous songs have been neglected, and are perhaps his best work.

Le Jeune: Airs & Pseaumes
Corvina Consort - Zoltán Kalmanovits
Hungaroton 32189

This Hungarian ensemble continues to create impressive interpretations of songs in French, making for the most diverse & accomplished program of Le Jeune's mature songs to date.

Finnish harpsichordist Aapo Häkkinen has begun to attract something of a following, especially among those listeners interested in later music. Regular readers will know that instrumental music c.1600 is often a regular "appendix" here, and so Häkkinen's recording of Frescobaldi must be noted.

Frescobaldi: Harpsichord Works
Aapo Häkkinen
Alba Records 178

The virtuosic passagework of Frescobaldi seems to suit Häkkinen perfectly.

Happy 2005!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb