Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2005

It is time once again to select the best recordings of the previous year. I have now been doing this formally for over a decade, and it seems that each year presents a different sort of breakdown of worthy recordings. For 2005, we have essentially two sets of three recordings, one of fifteenth century Franco-Flemish polyphony, and one of fourteenth century Italian Ars Nova secular music. So, without further ado, on to the list....

Recording of the Year

Micrologus has been doing superlative work in the domain of Italian Ars Nova music for years. Although they sometimes depart from this repertory, they return to it again & again, and somehow manage to maintain their freshness. With a program devoted exclusively to Landini, they have achieved their most sophisticated & polished presentation yet.

Landini: Fior di Dolceça
L'Ars nova di Magister Franciscus Cecus Orghanista de Florentia
Zig-Zag Territories 050603

Besides what I would term some crystalline sonorities that are somewhat atypical for Micrologus, this interpretation serves to clarify sonically the changes in style over the decades which produced the Italian Ars Nova songs. It does not do this explicitly, but comparison with Micrologus' own recordings of the somewhat earlier repertory, and some other interpretations of Ars Subtilior composers such as Matteo da Perugia presents a clear picture. Whereas it seems unlikely that Landini could ever be truly redefined at this point, his forward-thinking qualities are highlighted here. This is both the most immediately appealing and sophisticated recording of Landini's music to be produced to date, certain to be a core member of any selective medieval discography for years.


Speaking of redefinition, while we do likely have more moments of amazement coming from Obrecht, it is probably unrealistic to expect much more novelty from A:N:S Chorus's ongoing series, produced as it is in fairly close succession. Nonetheless, the fourth volume remains striking. This is interesting polyphony, continuing to show new facets of Obrecht's oeuvre, and continuing to impress with its interpretive strides.

Obrecht: Missa Fors seulement / Missa De tous biens playne / Missa Cela sans plus
A:N:S Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32319

The first two named masses are in three parts, and so an expansion of the discography on that basis, whereas the last is believed to be one of Obrecht's final works and a pointer in the direction of the parody mass. There is some wonderful material throughout. Already, I must remark that Obrecht's mass output is more interesting overall than Josquin's, and this release is further confirmation. Can a fifth program still show us something new? It should be a fun challenge. It will also be interesting to someday have other recorded interpretations of these works, but it will be difficult for other performers to match A:N:S's combination of clarity & intensity.

One composer who, despite some continued sporadic attention, has much room for improvement in the availability and quality of his recorded image is Busnoys. The significance of Busnoys to the development of polyphony and secular song in the fifteenth century can hardly be overstated, yet we are left with no recording which can be truly hailed as representing his work in compelling fashion. The Orlando Consort entered this arena, so to speak, in 2005.

Busnois: Missa "O crux lignum" / Motets / Chansons
Orlando Consort
Harmonia Mundi USA 907333

As intimated above, I cannot call this an outstanding interpretation, but it does manage to be the best so far. Shockingly, we have no dedicated recordings of Busnoys Chansons since the Nonesuch Consort in 1970. This must change, and the Orlando Consort is simply not dynamic enough to pull off a compelling entry to the field in limited space. The sacred works are more appealing, including some newly attributed motets.

Perhaps this review is too equivocal, but do note that this recording deserves its spot on the list. And a note to other ensembles: Tackle this repertory.

Moving back to the Italian Ars Nova, we have the second recording devoted specifically to Jacopo, a composer showing an interestingly "academic" side to his secular counterpoint.

Jacopo da Bologna: Madrigalli e Cacce
La Reverdie
Arcana 327

This is the latest in a long line of related programs by La Reverdie, and one which works well for me, as it adds some variety to my usual interpretive choices. While not a release likely to make any waves, it does slide nicely into a slot illustrating some appealing music.

It is somewhat amazing to think that our picture of Dufay could continue to progress with new major works, but this does happen. Perhaps we should be reminded that his birth year of 1397 was only recently established. Interest in recording Dufay also remains high, a pleasant fact. The Binchois Consort has once again taken up this banner with a quality addition to the discography.

Dufay: Mass for St. Anthony Abbot / Binchois: Motets
Binchois Consort - Andrew Kirkman
Hyperion 67474

After some early problems, I have come to find the Binchois Consort's attention to detail in tuning & phrasing to be quite stimulating, and they continue some good work here. The Dufay piece is rather similar to some of his other music, lessening its impact somewhat, but it does include some very appealing lyricism. The Binchois Consort has recorded Dufay much more often than it has Binchois, but does present some Binchois items here, including a lone isorhythmic motet.

I close the listing with another recording by Micrologus, mirroring the opening selection. Here we have a mixed program illustrating earlier music, much of it fairly well-known.

Alla Festa Leggiadra
Ballate, madrigali e danze all'epoca di Boccaccio (XIV sec.)
Ensemble Micrologus
Micrologus Edizioni Discografiche

I do not typically reward programs which can be described as above, but it in this case, the command & energy are simply too high to be ignored. This is a wonderful program & interpretation, and would make an ideal introduction to Italian Ars Nova music were it not for its relatively obscure availability.

Happy 2006!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb