Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2011

This is the most items to appear in this space since 2001, so it's been a notable year. Although there was nothing to really blow me away this year, as in the past couple of years, there was a wide variety of high quality releases, some tackling relatively well-known repertory. Others move deeper into particular unexplored niches.

I've mentioned a few things about trends the past few years in this space, but that's much harder to summarize this year. We have here a little bit of everything — not literally, of course, but many of the genres of interest to me are represented with a notable release this year. Is the recording industry healthier? Am I feeling more easily impressed? Coincidence? I believe it's probably the latter, but we'll have to see what 2012 brings.

Recording of the Year

As one would expect, the Recording of the Year for 2011 is a compelling performance (really two) of compelling music. It's a recording of complete works, which is often welcome, particularly when prepared with care. Moreover, in this case, it's a second survey of complete works. That fact would seem to diminish the impact of this release a little bit — only a little bit — and this is a very well-conceived and well-executed program:

Ciconia: Opera Omnia
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber / La Morra - Corina Marti & Michal Gondko
Ricercar 316 [CDx2]

Although Ciconia was already the recipient of a complete survey of his output, that program was recorded an astounding 30 years before this one, shortly prior to many significant developments in medieval performance practice (such as Pythagorean tuning's first appearance in 1982). Ciconia has also received considerable attention since, with multiple programs of interest from fine medieval interpreters of the day. So this complete program comes as something of a summation of that work, reevaluated in the context of 2010 scholarship, both in terms of Ciconia's catalog itself, and in performance practice — now extending to instrument construction, various aspects of articulation, etc. This production is also the fruit of intense research into a composer of the era who had originally been relatively anonymous, a process that obviously took decades, and was completed by musicologist Jérôme Lejeune, after being started by his parents. That alone is an interesting story, and the wide variety of stylistic material eventually attributed to Ciconia, makes him a fascinating study. One can only wonder if similar artistic portraits of other obscure names can be pieced together with similar attention.

The idea to have these two different ensembles handle the sacred & secular genres was superb, and indeed both are leaders in their fields. (In fact, both have previously been awarded Recordings of the Year here, in 2002 & 2006.) In some cases, well-known & well-interpreted pieces by Ciconia, particularly some of the widely recorded secular music, are given fairly similar but subtly updated or personalized renditions. In other cases, such as the all-vocal version of the canon Quod jactatur or many of the mass movements, pieces seem to really come together for the first time. The mass movement & motets generally have the most strikingly new-sounding performances, in part because of the relative lack of attention, although of course Ciconia's music has been very widely recorded. This is some of the most appealing music of its era, in a variety of forms, allowing us to perceive a single voice behind it all.


The remaining recordings on this list naturally fall into genre categories by pairs or triples, so I will go ahead and treat them together in four different sets. There is a wide range of worthwhile material below.

I have been regularly lamenting, in this space and elsewhere, that the secular music of the late 15th century and very early 16th century is not adequately represented on recording, and so I want to start with a pair of recordings that fit clearly into this category. Hopefully this is the start of a further (re-)exploration of this repertory.

We had not had a recording devoted primarily to Josquin's secular for 15 years, a stunning fact, but 2011 saw a release devoted to his instrumental music. Although not his most famous or multi-faceted secular works, this program fills a distinctive niche, not only within Josquin's discography, but as part of a greater understanding of the role of instrumental music in the era:

Les fantaisies de Josquin
The Instrumental Music of Josquin Desprez
Ensemble Leones - Marc Lewon
Christophorus 77348

The Ensemble Leones is a new ensemble, which also released another medieval program in 2011. The sound here is based strongly on strings, and reflects the latest research on instrument construction and playing technique, reflected particularly in phrasing & articulation. This is not a program that necessarily jumps out at the listener, as it is generally fairly quiet and nuanced, and indeed includes different treatments of the same material, but it does show many ways that themes were handled in the era. The fact that such a celebrated figure as Josquin can have such a recording released, showing new facets of his oeuvre, is indicative of how much more can be discovered in this repertory.

I do not know if it was an explicit decision by the label, but the other notable recording of secular music from this era to appear in 2011 was also released by Christophorus, with overlapping performers. This is likewise niche music, and likewise demonstrates different handling of the same themes:

Le Maitre de "Fricasée"
Secular Music of Jean Japart
Les Flamboyants - Michael Form
Christophorus 77353

Little is known of Japart, other than that he was favored by Petrucci in his secular collections, but here the image of a musician does begin to emerge. Japart had a flair for combining more than one characteristic tune of the era, as well as multiple treatments of the same tune. (The latter puts him in the company of e.g. Agricola, and as per above, Josquin himself.) The quodlibet (or fricasée) style is especially striking here, and gives Japart a uniquely intricate voice in short & dense works.

Moving to older secular music, there were two releases of particular interest, both by ensembles who are developing a history of performing in these styles. These are both straightforwardly enjoyable recordings, and easy to recommend.

The second Trecento recording by Ensemble Syntagma builds nicely on their first release, and continues a focus on lesser known but sophisticated repertory:

Rosa e Orticha
Music of the Trecento
Ensemble Syntagma - Alexandre Danilevski
Carpe Diem 16287

The performance here is less understated than their first effort. Ensemble Syntagma is greatly enhancing our experience of the variety of Trecento secular polyphony extant, as well as developing performance practice for the period.

While the previous item was basically a second volume, the following item is explicitly a second volume, this time of music in French:

Codex Chantilly II
Tetraktys - Kees Boeke
Etcetera 1905

At this point, Kees Boeke has quite a history of performing Ars Subtilior music, with a variety of ensembles. Tetraktys makes some substantial changes to their ensemble constitution from their first volume (released in 2008), but continues with a fairly similar conception. The opportunity to appraise the entire Codex Chantilly in sound is a tantalizing one, and hopefully this project will continue at a faster pace. I am not sure what to expect, if they get to the entire unrecorded portion of the manuscript. That aside, the more famous items in the Codex Chantilly help to define our view of the abstract (improvisational?) songs of the era, and new renditions are welcome.

Mass cycles of the later fifteenth century and into the early sixteenth century continue to be of high interest, not only for the quality & variety of the counterpoint, and the influence on the historical development of Western music, but because performers are still unraveling how to create idiomatic renditions of these monuments. Performance practice continues to improve & evolve (and I mean both of those, perhaps separately). With it, our understanding of works changes, our understanding of relationships between works changes, etc. After landmark releases in this genre the past few years, this year also saw significant renditions of c.1500 masses, including from oft-represented ensembles. The three recordings here fit into the discography in rather different ways.

The Sound and the Fury released recordings for 2009 & 2010 that absolutely wowed me. For 2011, it seems that technically they might not have released anything, which I certainly hope is not a trend. However, the following recording, although dated 2010 on the package, did not come to my attention until the beginning of 2011, so I will discuss it here:

Guillaume Faugues 2
Paradise Regained
The Sound and the Fury
ORF "Alte Musik" 3115 [CDx2]

While their first recording devoted to Faugues was a quality issue, this second recording, made only 25 months later, shows a far greater command of the music. This release really establishes Faugues' mass style in idiomatic fashion, and with it, the state of the mass cycle in the 1460s. Although I have not found Faugues' music super-compelling on the personal level, together with recent releases devoted to Caron & Regis & others, this interpretation serves to transform our understanding of the cyclic mass in the era of Dufay, Ockeghem, Busnoys, etc. This effort provides very important context for the period, and is also enjoyable music. Of those appearing this year, this recording probably had the biggest effect on my appraisal of other music.

The Tallis Scholars continue their cycle of Josquin masses in 2011, in this case, with two of his best-known works:

Josquin: Missa De beata virgine / Missa Ave maris stella
Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 044

Not much more really needs to be said about this release, except that the interpretations continue to be very up-to-date & idiomatic, making this relatively well-known music as lucid as it has ever been. These performances are not especially revelatory in that sense, but continue a makeover of Josquin's discography according to the latest performance practice. This is, of course, very enjoyable & compelling polyphony, famous for a reason.

La Rue's music is some of my favorite, and his discography continues to be one of the most interesting. Specific ensembles do not dominate, even by era, as it seems to develop sporadically with an effort by one group here, another there, etc. This year saw a rather singular release:

Extreme Singing
La Rue Requiem and other Low Masterpieces of the Renaissance
Vox Early Music Ensemble - Christopher Wolverton
Ancient Voice Records 002

The theme is around the extremes of notes, both high & low, but especially low, in La Rue's music and more broadly in the period. This is the first recording of La Rue's famous Requiem at written pitch, serving to underscore the striking aspects of this music. The basses in the Vox Ensemble do a sterling job with these very low notes, and the inclusion of other pieces featuring some similar note values serves to place La Rue's masterpiece in more context. This rendition is a bit stiff at times, but is a fascinating look at pitch in this repertory. Personally, I find the argument that La Rue intended the music to be sung as written (i.e. not transposed) to be compelling. And so our understanding continues to evolve.

English consort music is something of a tangent here, but it is a longstanding tangent. It continues to be compelling music for me, for a couple of distinct reasons. First, one still hears elements of medieval style in consort music into the later 1600s. Historically, this is related to the cloistered nature of much English music into the 1500s, and resulting conservatism, including not really even embracing the Ars Nova. Upon grappling with the Reformation and Continental styles, composers seem to have retained this affinity for older ideas in some consort forms, even when being self-consciously new elsewhere. Second is the basic appeal of a group of similar instruments with equal roles. Continental music had already shifted to ideas around continuo, and related ways of using different instruments together, with distinct & defined roles. That said, English consort music in the 1600s is far from static... it continues along its way, in far corners, even after the Civil War. It's a style of music that deserves broader attention, and 2011 saw two excellent releases, one devoted to the early part of the repertory, and one devoted to the late.

Byrd wrote in all of the forms of his era, often serving to transform those styles for subsequent generations of English composers. Largely for the reasons above, his instrumental music has been particularly appealing to me, and indeed his consort music was apparently widely influential at the time. The latest recording:

Byrd: Complete Consort Music
Linn Records 372

As a bookend to the opening Ciconia citation, this music has likewise enjoyed a complete recording in the past, but with subsequent revision to the precise catalog. Again, an updated interpretation is quite welcome, in contemporary sound, and with the latest viol technique. Although this recording does not serve to change my views of Byrd's music, it is enjoyable and welcome.

On the other end of the historical phenomenon of consort music — which nominally ended with Purcell's quickly-written efforts in the genre, which I do not find terribly idiomatic — is the large and far-ranging output of John Jenkins. The four-part consorts are in many ways his most striking, and another recording of this music appeared this year:

Jenkins: Consort Music of Four Parts
The Spirit of Gambo
Musica Ficta 8011

I was not previously familiar with this ensemble, but they do an outstanding job with the music. Their interpretation is distinctive & compelling, all the way to constructing a set of viols themselves to suit the music. Although Jenkins also wrote in more modern chamber forms, featuring dance movements and continuo-inspired instrumental roles, his four-part consorts combine an element of newness with tradition. Although earlier composers wrote in four parts, the major works in the repertory were generally in five or six, so Jenkins is effectively adopting a less full modern sound here. However, he keeps to the idea of similar roles for all players, as well as writing in the more contrapuntal fantasy form. Some of the ideas here make for interesting comparison with the rise of the classical string quartet.

Happy 2012!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb