Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2008

This year's listing presents something of an opportunity to ponder criteria. I basically select these recordings according to whether they make their way onto my list of personal favorite recordings, compiled for the repertory I enjoy, for all years combined. Some recordings join the list because they present repertory that had not appeared in a compelling performance before. Some join the list because I enjoy them just a little more than previous recordings of oft-performed works. And some join the list because their interpretations are strikingly different and form a good contrast to other items. I am comfortable with these reasons, and perhaps there are others, because they combine to form a set of recordings I particularly value. When it comes to comparing them, for purposes of picking a Recording of the Year, though, those differing criteria can present some commensurability challenges.

So those are some opening thoughts, and now I will move on to naming my favorite recordings of 2008. Although it started off slowly, this ended up being a good year, at least relative to recent standards.

Recording of the Year

I have likely lamented in this space that most of the best recordings of Josquin's major works are starting to feel dated. Of course, they have been recorded early & often in the early music movement, and as scholarship accelerated in the 1980s & 1990s, improvements in performance practice and especially basic comfort level with the repertory have followed. People who have had the opportunity to grow up listening to this music now have the ability to perform it, and that trend should only strengthen, leading to more interpretative command & richness.

That said, our notions of Josquin's most significant and/or artistically compelling works have been relatively stable through this latest wave of interpretive refinement. Nowhere is this more true than with the masses, yet the latest Tallis Scholars recording firmly announces the Missa Sine nomine as one of his finest works. The mass had appeared complete once in the LP era, and with a few of its sections on CD anthologies, but here is given a fine modern performance through which it shines. Even if it did not end up influencing subsequent generations, as many of Josquin's other works did, this is clearly one of his most accomplished cycles, if not simply his best.

Josquin: Missa Sine nomine / Missa Ad fugam
The Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 039

The Missa Ad fugam is a natural pairing in this program, although it is a less sophisticated cycle. This release was also accompanied by a statement that the Tallis Scholars will be recording Josquin's complete masses. I have not seen any followup on that remark, however, so anything more about such plans is unknown. One can only hope that they see fit to re-record the Josquin masses they released early in their existence, because both their interpretive decisions & command are now far superior to those early days. This recording is technically executed extremely well, laying out these masses with great clarity and precision.


One of the most-recorded monuments in all of medieval music is Machaut's mass. (By our count, there are 31 complete versions recorded.) It is difficult to choose any one version as clearly superior to all the others, and of course, one is forced to make compromises in some areas. However, building especially on their command of the conductus style of previous generations, not to mention their work with the isorhythmic style, Diabolus in Musica has succeeded in creating a finely coherent & unified interpretation that nicely illustrates the different styles forming the basis for Machaut's cycle.

Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Alpha 132

With Diabolus in Musica, one always gets rich & sonorous vocal tone, and this release is no exception. It is flat-out enjoyable to hear, and that includes for the newcomer to this music. The program itself contains plainchant to place the mass in perspective, and I always have mixed feelings about filling limited CD space with relatively uninteresting plainchant, but here it comes off quite nicely. The three isorhythmic motets included in the program are a welcome addition. Mainly though, as noted, it is Diabolus in Musica's extensive work with the conductus genre which shows through in illustrating Machaut's sections in this relatively old-fashioned style, creating a strong overall impression.

Continuing to discuss some of the monuments of medieval (or Renaissance, if we like) music, Cantica Symphonia released their second volume of Dufay motets in 2008, completing the series. Although this set of discs does not present any notable move forward in performance practice or technique, it is simply the most complete & enjoyable production in this area to date.

Dufay: Motets, Vol, 2
Cantica Symphonia - Giuseppe Maletto
Glossa 31904

Performance practice in this set uses quite a bit of instrumental support, for which there is extensive historical evidence, and looks back rather fundamentally to Helga Weber's first recording of Dufay's complete isorhythmic motets. Although some additional textural clarity might be welcome at times, the warmness of sound and general Italianate sensuality is pleasing. Dufay's motets continue to form a pinnacle of the genre, standing at the crossroads between medieval & Renaissance style.

Perhaps the most noteworthy 15th century recording of the year, if not the most striking, was that dedicated to Guillaume Faugues. This is the first disc devoted entirely to Faugues, and includes arguably his two best mass cycles. While no one since Tinctoris seems to be claiming Faugues as a preeminent master of the time, I found his mass cycles to be both directly enjoyable and very illuminating regarding musical style. These works shine an interesting light on the varied achievements of his contemporaries.

Faugues: Paradise regained
Missa "Le Serviteur" / Missa "Je suis en la mer"
The Sound and the Fury
ORF 3025

The ensemble "The Sound and the Fury" continues to release interesting recordings for Radio Austria, lamentably difficult to obtain in the US. They bring both a forceful & mellifluous style to this music, presenting it in accomplished fashion. The quality of the interpretation and the singing also serve to underscore the value of this disc in understanding the mass cycle of the 1460s & 70s.

Turning to earlier secular music, this listing closes with two recordings by Ensemble Syntagma. Alexandre Danilevski has brought together an interesting assortment of creative artists, many of whom are known from other ensembles. Beginning with Russian Baroque music, the ensemble has now been recording medieval music. In each of these releases, little-known repertory is brought together with a very sophisticated feeling for articulation & sonority.

Trecento music continues to be some of the easiest to enjoy, especially in lively & colorful performances. Here we find a variety of instrumental & vocal sonorities, but also a level of restraint which does well to support the texture of the music.

Stylems - Italian Music from the Trecento
Egidius da Francia, Bartolino da Padova, Don Paolo da Firenze
Ensemble Syntagma - Alexandre Danilevski
Challenge Classics 72195

The composers and material are relatively little known, making this disc rather distinct from most Trecento compilations, but the result is quite engaging and really benefits from repeated hearing.

Earlier in the year, Ensemble Syntagma released a disc of even earlier music, to which many similar comments apply. This was suddenly & unexpectedly one of the best recordings devoted to an individual trouvère, a surprise to me given the relatively limited stature of Gautier d'Épinal to date.

Gautier d'Épinal: Remembrance
Ensemble Syntagma - Alexandre Danilevski
Challenge Classics 72190

However the ensemble and this program make for wonderful advocacy, creating a disc of interesting melodies, rhythms & sonorities. The result has a haunting, memorable quality.

Happy 2009!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb