Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2010

As with last year, although this listing is not especially long, it contains some very significant items. In fact, I should follow up to mention how well last year's releases have held up in the past year. 2009's list continues to be amazing.

As with last year, and the recent trends on this list, mass cycles from c.1500 continue to be highly esteemed, and appear in new or better performances. That period of music was so rich in contrapuntal ideas, we are still really only sorting through them. That said, as the mass receives so much welcome attention, other forms are being neglected. There were some good performances of motets from the era this year, although none in a program that really worked for me overall. (Last year we did have those of Regis appear, which was significant.) Chansons are even more neglected. There is a huge amount of secular material that has barely been touched, or has not been recorded for decades. When does this change? Whereas we might view the mass cycles as the grand cathedrals of the time, the chansons were frequently the sparkling jewels, full of variety, and the origin of many of the ideas that were eventually worked out over the larger canvas of a mass cycle.

And now onto the recordings that actually were released in 2010....

Recording of the Year

As with last year, the Recording of the Year for 2010 just blew me away, and was a very clear selection. If I can help it, I try not to repeat ensembles or composers in consecutive years, but sometimes little niceties such as that fall away in the face of a truly amazing result.

La Rue's discography has been taking shape over the past few years, with a slow flow of quality releases, mainly devoted to his mass cycles. We've also seen a few recordings include motets, although none dedicated to that form. Although more would be welcome, La Rue is actually a bit of an exception for c.1500 composers when it comes to chansons. Les Jardins de Courtoisie released a program of mainly La Rue chansons in 2006, which is my most recent acclaimed secular release from the period (and by a twist of fate, I didn't manage to include it in any yearly review).

This year, we got a recording of two of his most technically complex masses. Whereas the awe-inspiring Missa Ave sanctissima Maria had had its Sanctus appear in David Munrow's legendary Art of the Netherlands, the sublime Missa O salutaris Hostia came out of nowhere.

Pierre de la Rue 1
Paradise regained
Missa "Ave sanctissima Maria" / Missa "O salutaris Hostia"
The Sound and the Fury
ORF 3094

The performance is all we would expect from The Sound and the Fury, with great command of the material, intelligently expounded with much energy & clarity. The Missa Ave sanctissima Maria, as was La Rue's motet of the same name, is constructed out of three 2-part canons, yielding six parts. It builds at times into impressive walls of sound, seemingly beating the listener into submission with La Rue's musical argument. Although not particularly subtle, it is an impressive tour-de-force. The Missa O salutaris Hostia is a singly-notated 4-in-1 canon, not nearly so immediately impressive sonically, but even more impressive intellectually. The musical invention and sheer command of the idiom, reduced into the smallest gesture transferred elaborately over four parts, represents a pinnacle of the era. This might be the most amazing piece, throughout, that I've heard. After a couple of abortive attempts to listen to this tricky piece, when I finally did sit down with full attention, I was simply shocked & amazed — more than once.

La Rue's discography was in need of this sort of singularly impressive recording, and finally has it here in 2010. Unfortunately, ORF's choice not to make these recordings more widely available is an impediment to this recording being as widely heard as it should be. Otherwise, this is immediately one of the most advanced & recommendable combinations of repertory & performance available. Anyone interested in Western counterpoint should hear it.


Of course, no piece of music can be more immediately recommendable to someone trying to learn medieval music than Machaut's Mass, and 2010 saw another superlative release of this well-known masterpiece.

In Memoriam
Machaut: Messe Notre Dame Ensemble Musica Nova - Lucien Kandel
Aeon 1093

Having recorded three CDs-worth of Machaut's music prior to this undertaking clearly served Ensemble Musica Nova well, and their recording becomes my favorite. My previous favorite, that by Diabolus in Music, is also outstanding, but here we have a greater clarity in texture, some even juicier dissonance, and wonderfully articulate performances of five of the multi-text motets of the era. This is simply an outstanding recording, reminding us how far we've come in the understanding & technical command of this music.

Likewise reminding of us of how far we've come, Josquin's discography continues to receive a facelift in the form of new performances taking into account more recent research & understanding of the structure of c.1500 music. This year saw an excellent new release of some of his most famous music.

Josquin: Messes de l'Homme armé
Métamorphoses - Maurice Bourbon
Calliope 9441

It is kind of amazing, and was more than a little surprising, to hear Maurice Bourbon and his ensemble reinvent themselves in performing the music of this era. Their recordings from the 1980s were old-fashioned even for the 1980s, but here we have an excellent release containing all of the fruits of recent scholarship. The all-vocal ensemble itself is also outstanding in working through some very intricate sections, while keeping the rhythms & textures clear. The famous Agnus Dei of the Super voces musicales comes off quite impressively. This is also supposed to be the first in a complete series of Josquin masses. (I'll note that I did not see a release from the Tallis Scholars this year.)

Somehow, whereas c.1500 secular music is terribly neglected, c.1400 secular music continues to receive attention. This state of affairs is kind of interesting, given that the c.1400 music was generally eschewed entirely (either as unplayable or just not very appealing) only a few decades ago. It is good to see the attention, though, as there is a wealth of very appealing & intricate material.

Corps femenin
L'avant-garde de Jean Duc de Berry
Ferrara Ensemble - Crawford Young
Arcana 355

I do not know the story about this 2010 release being recorded mostly in 2000, with some tracks from 2008 & 2009. However, it is a natural continuation of the Ferrara Ensemble's exploration of this repertory, and fits nicely into the Ars Subtilior discography as the most recent notable release in that genre. It's not a groundbreaking recording, but very enjoyable.

Of course, secular music from the era of the troubadours continues to receive attention, as that and the songs & dances into the 1300s continue to form the basis of much medieval performance. Whereas I usually prefer programs that focus on a particular repertory, this year saw a release of love songs from the general era that was simply too enjoyable to ignore.

L'amor de Lonh
Medieval songs of love and loss
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Glossa 32304

Dominique Vellard & Ensemble Gilles Binchois continue to record steadily, and here return to secular music (their previous secular release being a recording devoted to cantigas in 2005). Incorporating not only troubadour songs, but cantigas, trouvère songs, Sephardic songs, and French regional traditional songs, this program really spans the style. The ensemble's work in these areas in the past (not to mention contemporary & world traditional music) pays off here with expert renditions that show both the commonalities & differences in these repertories with great clarity & passion. This recording would make a great introduction to Western medieval music for someone coming from a different world tradition. For those of us within the Western tradition, it remains ear-catching and deeply appealing.

Happy 2011!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb