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 2007, we have two recordings of Franco-Flemish polyphony, two of Burgundian polyphonic songs, and one each of medieval lyric & English consort music.
Franco-Flemish polyphony has been the largest component of the "Record of the Year" rundowns over the years, both due to high interest in this music as well as because the individual pieces are long enough to mostly fill entire programs. Regarding the music, this era is usually seen as an absolutely pivotal time for the formation of Western ideas on counterpoint & harmony, these traits in turn being the most distinctive aspects of Western music when considered as part of the world at large. These factors are indeed very significant toward assigning major importance to these works, but let us not forget that the music itself is very engaging, especially for its elaborate counterpoint, something that would be streamlined by subsequent generations. Beyond this, interpretive choices continue to develop, and in significant ways. For this outpouring of creativity that forged Western harmonic style, we are still debating the placement of major & minor intervals, namely music ficta. Our understanding continues to evolve to the extent that much of what was attempted regarding accidentals, phrasing, tempo, forces, tuning, etc. even a couple of decades ago seems outdated. It continues to be an exciting field, made doubly so by the technique & experience necessary to produce a truly first-rate performance, even if one already agrees on all of the technical choices.
The length of the works and consequent domination of CD-length programs by individual works is not inherently a plus, and should not be regarded as anything but neutral. The significant factor there is that major individual works are released separately, rather than together on one program, providing more opportunities to appear on a list. This year's Record of the Year takes that aspect to a new level, creating a program centered on 4 versions of the same piece. It is also, perhaps unbelievably, given such an emphasis on his work over the years, the first Ockeghem program to receive this award. Ockeghem's Missa Cuiusvis toni, although much-cited as singularly impressive, had yet to be performed in convincing fashion. Indeed, I had wondered about the piece's actual artistic merit, but no more.
Here we have a very easy choice for Record of the Year, a program & interpretation which present a compelling look at a singularly interesting piece for the first time. Moreover, the consideration of ficta and other performance aspects is such that the interpretation is a very significant document for the understanding & interpretation of this repertory as a whole. This ensemble, which had previously worked with earlier music, also does an outstanding job with rhythm, phrasing, and clarity of line. In short, this is a model performance, of music suddenly made much more interesting by virtue of this recording. My only real complaint is that such outstanding work in this area was accompanied by a lapse in ethical judgement, namely using some of my own writing without attribution, as I have discussed elsewhere. The positive side of this action, which does bother me somewhat, is that I cannot now be accused of conflict of interest in making this selection. Regardless of my personal feelings on the subject, this recording is obviously worthy of its placement here.
Continuing the Franco-Flemish theme, Gombert's music has been of considerable interest at least since it was highlighted by Gustave Reese. While there have been some interesting & worthwhile efforts in the past, "the sound and the fury" ensemble has really set a new standard in performing this music, especially with its energy & clarity. This past year saw their second volume appear, and while not quite as exciting overall as the first, it also contains a variety of appealing music in top-flight performance.
This recording is particularly obscure, appearing nowhere in new release listings that I have been able to consult, and apparently only available directly from Austrian Radio. The same is true of the first volume, produced in 2006, and consequently I did not learn of this series until this year. The first volume would have appeared last year, had I known of it, and I am certainly grateful for having learned of the existence of this material from a newsgroup post asking how to obtain it. A development such as this always makes me wonder what else I may be missing, this despite literally dozens of people helping apprise me of interesting new work in medieval & Renaissance music.
Turning to the first of two quite interesting looks at songs from the early 1400s, I will take a brief moment to discuss the "medieval or Renaissance?" question. There are many ways to answer this, with American university educators largely taking the view that the generation of Binchois & Dufay marks the beginning of the Renaissance in music, and that view is reflected in many places on this website. Although I have not shifted to it entirely here, and although there remain interesting technical reasons (revolving around thirds and the mass cycle) to accept that view, I have increasingly considered this music to be late medieval, in agreement with typical French scholarship. Placing the musical Renaissance with the beginning of music printing is also a nice convenience, centered around a concrete development that even the layperson can understand & appreciate. That said, classification of this sort is ultimately something very secondary, a retrospective appraisal.
I was originally disappointed that this release was not as strikingly original as some previous work by Ensemble Graindelavoix, and their own program notes, suggested it would be. On the other hand, I have increasingly enjoyed this program and interpretation, making as it does an excellent complement to the very polished & prototypical Ensemble Gilles Binchois recording. Ornamentation & phrasing, in particular, are reconsidered here, and the orientation around the plaint provides the program & performance with coherence. Binchois' songs continue to be highly appealing, forming as they do one of history's great chanson outputs.
Although more a part of the "medieval music establishment," one might say, Diabolus in Musica also brings some freshness & creativity to their program of this repertory, in this case songs of Dufay. Dufay's songs have received quite a bit of attention of late, which they certainly deserve, but have also been plagued by performances which offer very similar conceptions. This suggests a finality to our understanding and our approach which I flatly deny exists. Here, Antoine Guerber has made a real attempt to reconsider these fabulous songs, at least with different ensemble groupings.
The result is quite an enjoyable program to hear, and one which will surely be appealing to a broad audience. As ensembles such as this grow and become more famous, and (justly) respected, it does seem that their style of vocal production seems to adjust more to the "Early Music Voice" which we know to be a recent creation. I do want to note that here, but want to end by also noting how much this ensemble's general experience with Dufay and music of this era shows in the sophistication of their lines & overall shaping.
Moving to earlier music, of course also reflecting similar love themes, the Zig-Zag Territoires label has managed to produce a second compelling program devoted to Adam de la Halle. This time, compared to Micrologus' very engaging look at similar repertory, the approach could not be more different. The "Le Jardin de Courtoisie" is all about understated sophistication in this program, as well as taking a good look at the way rhythm & accompaniment are constructed in this type of lyric.
The result is a distinctive look at the quieter, more languid side of the trouvère repertory, although punctuated with some of the "verticality" that Adam de la Halle was developing in his rondeaus. Unlike those & his dramatic innovations, this program and (perhaps in contradiction, considering the innovation reflected in the accompaniment) performance have at their best something of a "classic" aura to them. The long, monophonic melodies are treated particularly well, based partly on careful examination of differences in the sources, helping to illuminate what are the more & less important aspects of the tune. The heart of the trouvère repertory, the grand chanson, takes on a real intimacy here.
Finally, here is a program of consort repertory that slips neatly into discographies. Although Jenkins' five-part consorts are often regarded as his most distinctive contributions to the repertory, they had been only sparsely recorded previously.
Phantasm has taken on that challenge, and done so in an outstanding & accomplished interpretation which continues to raise English viol consort playing to new heights. Although Jenkins will never be the most "significant" of composers, his large output of enjoyable material provides us with plenty of opportunity for appreciation today.
To Recordings of the Years pageTodd M. McComb