It is time once again to select the best recordings of the previous year. I have been doing this formally for over a dozen years now, and each year presents a different sort of breakdown of worthy recordings. For 2006, we have three medieval secular programs and two of Franco-Flemish sacred polyphony. And now to the list....
It is unusual for a Record of the Year to feature a program where none of the individual pieces is particularly well-known or distinctive. In this case, the Turin Manuscript, featuring songs from French-ruled Cyprus, is entirely anonymous. There has been some debate regarding who might have compiled, and in turn composed, this material. There has also been debate over its musical merit, even more so than the Ars Subtilior material at large. Nonetheless, this is the single largest source of secular polyphony from these decades, making it significant by virtue of uniqueness alone. Beyond that, many of the songs are quite appealing, especially as the various idioms of c.1400 become better known.
After a period of intense interest in performing the Ars Subtilior repertory, often in very creative fashion, there had been something of a lull in recording this music. This year's release from La Morra breaks that lull, and does so with the most technically compelling interpretation to date. There is some excellent music here, performed well, and although it does not feature any "famous" pieces - as with the Chantilly MS collections - the program takes on a central place in the Ars Subtilior discography.
It is perhaps strange to be equivocal in a Record of the Year selection, especially one chosen largely on technical merit, but my general enthusiasm for this performance should not imply satisfaction with every interpretive choice. In particular, I do not like how the voice part is doubled instrumentally at times. Also, the choice of performing so many songs without lyrics, while creating enjoyable instrumental compositions, does not do them full justice. Nonetheless, the choice of repertory from the large manuscript is a good one, and the interpretation, pace the preceding comments, truly shines. Handling of rhythm, phrasing, articulation, and tuning are outstanding. La Morra sets a new standard for performing this repertory, producing a rendition that seems entirely natural, thus earning this spot for 2006. An interesting fact of note is that this is easily the earliest repertory they have recorded to date.
First recordings of the major works of the great Franco-Flemish masters are always in great demand, at least in this corner of the world. Capilla Flamenca continues to devote much of its attention to Pierre de la Rue, and 2006 saw perhaps their best combination of repertory & performance in a program of his sacred music to date.
This is a very accomplished performance, featuring some of La Rue's best music. As opposed to some previous programs from this ensemble, the plainchant sections are not as lengthy, leaving time for more of La Rue's sacred polyphony to complement the mass. The Magnificat is particularly welcome. Altogether, this is a fine addition to La Rue's discography and a clear choice for this list.
When it comes to Franco-Flemish polyphony, it seems there is always room for another look at the music of Josquin Desprez. Ensemble De Labyrintho released a second program in 2006, giving the impression that this may turn into a more extensive series.
Not too many ensembles have been recording entire programs of Josquin's music in the past few years, perhaps thinking it is over-exposed, but new looks featuring up-to-date information on musica ficta, rhythm, tempo, tuning, and sonority can still be quite valuable. In the case of De Labyrintho, their last two programs are simply the most-accomplished yet devoted to Josquin. For such a high-profile composer, it is perhaps amazing that there are so many technical nuances which could benefit from further refinement in 2006, but the fact remains. Most major recordings of Josquin's mass cycles are dated, scholarly, at this point and so new programs such as this are very much needed.
The past few years have continued to see a fairly intense cultivation of the lai form, largely driven by a small handful of performers. Machaut's wonderful works in this area have been highlighted repeatedly, and now in 2006, we have a systematic thematic program from the previous generation of this repertory.
Alla Francesca have clearly positioned themselves as leaders in this area, and the result is a very enjoyable & worthwhile program. This was an easy release to slide neatly into medieval discographies, and it is very valuable in clarifying some of the similarities and differences between the lai and trouvère songs of the era, as well as providing a fine context for the developments undertaken by Machaut.
It came as something of a shock to me that Gothic Voices had not released a recording in so many years, once I took a look at their discography for the purpose of pondering this 2006 release. Combine a timely renewed look at the Ars Nova in their own distinctive style with a program featuring all of Solage's songs, and the result is clearly worthwhile.
Although it is difficult, especially with this opportunity to hear his complete output, to put Solage near Machaut in terms of compositional prowess, the repertory remains welcome in one place on disc. The new recordings of Machaut songs by Gothic Voices are also enjoyable, making for a fine overall program.
To Recordings of the Years pageTodd M. McComb