Although 2009 was not a high-volume year for Medieval & Renaissance recordings, it was nonetheless an outstanding year when it came to Franco-Flemish polyphony, highlighted by the six releases below.
That the items listed all come from a fairly narrow band of repertory this year is probably a testament to the very fine music from this era that had not been recorded before (or performed well), and to the fact that there was really nothing in the way of an exciting new performance style that appeared on disc this year. We also seem to have a real understanding of how to perform these pieces now, and that understanding has only crystallized relatively recently.
The Recording of the Year this year is actually quite easy to select. I had publicly lamented that no recordings had been devoted to Firminus Caron for a while now. Frankly, this lament was basically academic. I did not have a strong reason to believe that I would particularly enjoy his music, but it did seem curious that he was the only major composer highlighted by Tinctoris who had not been recorded in any notable way. As it turns out, I also greatly enjoy his music.
The sound and the fury have become a fixture on this listing the past few years, and continue to record many interesting programs. This is their most exciting to date, propelling a basically unknown composer into an obviously high category as far as accomplishment. This music is relatively modern for its time (the mid-to-late 1400s), in terms of the way the voices are arrayed and in its use of binary rhythm. Elements of rhythm are used quite expertly by Caron throughout, and the movements & cycles have impressive developments and both subtle and less subtle climaxes. The sound and the fury brings a great energy, as well as formal clarity, as they so often do, which combines to great effect with Caron's energetic rhythmic style.
The masses themselves are both cantus firmus masses, the first on the famous L'homme armé tune, and the other on one of Caron's own songs. Caron's setting basically starts the second generation of L'homme armé settings, by breaking up & varying the cantus firmus. There is every bit the impression that the music is obeying Caron, and not the other way around. This is simply music of amazing technical invention & forceful ideas, and an outstanding addition to the discography of the period. It does make me that much more interested in a recording devoted to Caron's ample surviving chanson output, although attention to the secular output of this period has been even slower to materialize here in the 21st century.
The Neapolitan manuscript of six anonymous L'homme armé masses has not been given as much attention as it is due, both because of its anonymity and because some parts & sections are missing. This year saw a rather satisfying look at this music, however, featuring the complicated sixth mass in complete form. This is compelling music, elaborately & scrupulously constructed, that deserves more attention.
Cantica Symphonia has been recording extensively from the 1400s, most often music of Dufay, and their continued command shows in this release, despite some rather tricky music. The program is also far more compelling than the earlier recording devoted to this music. The first five masses basically develop material that is brought together in the sixth mass, so here the most characteristic components are performed for those earlier masses, surrounding the technical tour-de-force that is the sixth mass. I am not entirely happy with the instrumental tenor, but the performance is certainly satisfactory, and brings to life some outstanding music. To top off our theme for the year, although attributed to Busnois here, there is also a plausible argument that this music is by Caron. I would welcome a performance of the full cycle of masses. (And how about a new recording devoted to Busnois' chansons — that is long overdue!)
Proving that they are extremely prolific right now, The sound and the fury has another recording on this list, and these two are not the only ones they released this year.
These are a couple of very high-quality and representative middle period masses by Obrecht, performed with great command and verve. This recording sits very nicely alongside those by A:N:S Chorus, featuring different masses, and with a similar performance style. Obrecht's discography is starting to look quite nice, after a rather pathetic situation only 15 years ago. I will also take this opportunity to lament that ORF is not distributing these recordings more widely. As far as I know, the reader will have to buy them directly, at a high price (but please let me know if this is not true), although this is a 2-for-1 set.
The Tallis Scholars continued their series of Josquin's masses with the second issue in this series (I am ignoring their early recordings). Although these masses are not among Josquin's most influential or accomplished, and not nearly the "find" of the material of the previous issue, this is still quality music in a very good performance.
The above might not seem like the greatest compliment, but in something of an irony, Josquin's best works often do not have very good performances available when compared to those of some of his contemporaries. This is because performance practice developed considerably since his discography really filled up (this includes the early Tallis Scholars recordings, which have major technical problems), and it seems performers are being relatively slow to jump back into some of this repertory. That situation makes this high quality recording of some rather "typical" music by Josquin very welcome.
Another ensemble which has recorded a great deal of Dufay's music, although curiously named after Binchois, who they seldom record, has released probably their most appealing recording to date.
The Binchois Consort always has great clarity & precision, and this issue is no exception. Frankly, this music is not quite as compelling as the rest of the repertory on this list, but it is still of considerable merit, of historical significance, and well-handled here. If you have not heard any other recordings by this ensemble, this would be the first to hear, in my opinion.
I have put the outstanding Opera omnia release dedicated to Regis last, not because it suffers from any lack of individual merit, but simply because there was already an outstanding recording devoted to the masses which form the bulk of this program. However, the motets are very welcome, illustrating some amazing contrapuntal ideas from this very creative period (the mid-to-late 1400s again), and notes & packaging are also lavish (although actually difficult to use when it comes to getting the CDs out).
This is a solid, but unremarkable, performance by The Clerks. In some ways, I might prefer the earlier rendition, but that is far from an easy choice. Regis' music has many appealing qualities, and a sort of exuberance borne of an almost contradictory combination of contrapuntal density & clarity that make it a joy to hear. The motets were unusual in exploring 5-voice texture, and can be quite revelatory, recorded here together for the first time. Both Regis and Caron deserve to be much more widely known.
To Recordings of the Years pageTodd M. McComb