Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2012

There have, again, been several very worthwhile items this year, and it's exciting to know that interpretations of medieval music continue to progress and develop. There's so much more to be heard in these recent recordings than there was ten or twenty (or even more!) years ago, where we used to hear so much of the performers' own twentieth century background and orientation. Research continues to progress, and in turn, it opens up new (or old) ways of thinking about music.

This year's writeup is typical of this space, with an emphasis on the large scale music of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the so-called Franco-Flemish polyphony. While some chronologies, particularly in USA pedagogy, and even some pages on this site, place this music within the realm of the Renaissance, over the past twenty years, I've become increasingly comfortable calling anything that predates the beginning of music printing (and those works contiguous with it) as medieval. Music printing represented a fundamental change, and so provides a nice boundary line, assuming we have to draw lines between eras. And perhaps more to the subject of personal (or site) vanity, it allows me to claim some amazing music as part of the medieval title. Beyond that, music printing was symptomatic of major social change, particularly around the Reformation & Counter-Reformation (so significant to music) and worldwide European conquest. Both economies and attitudes were transformed, leaving c.1500 music at an apex of a particular world system. It doesn't really require a political justification for its value, however, as it also happens to be amazingly rich in the aesthetic dimension — one might say, the last music before the West jettisoned much of its aesthetics and got down to the business of Empire.

Recording of the Year

The Sound and the Fury ensemble is in the midst of an amazing run of interpretations, mainly tackling the fifteenth century. While it might be easy to begin to take these recordings for granted, leaving an overall appraisal for long after they've stopped recording, or instead to uncritically accept whatever they produce as the next great thing, I hope I'm reacting with some clarity. Time will tell. In any case, both their La Rue & Caron discs have been Recordings of the Year here. Although I didn't hear their first Ockeghem disc as anything special back in 2008, their second is now the most impressive in that composer's discography, and the first of real significance since 2007:

Johannes Ockeghem 2
The Sound and the Fury
ORF "Alte Musik" 3130

As the above discussion suggests, after a strong burst in the 1990s, recordings devoted to Ockeghem have tailed off significantly in the twenty-first century. (However, there is also a new recording by Lucien Kandel that was apparently released in France in 2012, but has yet to find its way to me. It might have otherwise made a compelling pairing with the present item.) One natural reason is that, after focusing on Ockeghem as the leading composer of his generation (as generally assessed by commentators of the time), in order to made more interpretive strides, performers needed to develop more of a context for appraisal by cultivating a greater understanding of music by other composers. Indeed, perhaps no one has done more in recent years than The Sound and the Fury to create interpretations of relatively little known music by other composers from that era. Such an exploration leads to a better overall command of the style of the times; it's as if an individual composers' music needs to be approached both with a focus on his actual music and a focus on other music, creating an is/is-not boundary.

In any case, the results are amazing. This recording innocently named "Ockeghem 2" contains, in my opinion, the first recording of the enigmatic Missa Mi-Mi that really makes sense, restoring its place as a masterpiece of the period. There is relatively little discussion of approach, so it's impossible to recapitulate how the ensemble reconstructed this music, but it's safe to say that it comes generally from a large amount of experience of the music of the period. It takes a commitment to really grasp the internal logic of the time, and the way singers would have naturally interpreted this difficult score. It takes, also, a shedding of habits developed from 20th century music, or even 16th century music. In addition to the Missa Mi-Mi, the interpretation of the very different Missa Ecce ancilla Domini is barely less impressive. This cycle is far more representative of the period, and shows Ockeghem more as an "ordinary" composer, rather than someone trying to push the bounds of compositional form. In that sense, it makes comparison with others more reasonable, and Ockeghem's cycle really shines. In this pairing, we can therefore hear both one of his masses as fairly representative of its time, and one that pushed boundaries of form and had remained something of an enigma (albeit with a big reputation). The result is a distinct deepening of both understanding & appreciation of Ockeghem's music.


Apparently, The Sound and the Fury did not feel content to release only one groundbreaking recording in 2012. Following on their revelatory disc devoted to Caron in 2009, they have now recorded his complete works, including new performances of the two masses from 2009:

Caron: Masses & Chansons
The Sound and the Fury
Fra Bernardo 120 730 2 [CDx3]

In supplanting the previous Caron album in my personal lists, it became the first Record of the Year to be removed. Seeing as this is the 19th such writeup, I had to go back and verify this fact, as I was not sure. It rather amazes me, given the intervening years, and the somewhat tepid response I had to recordings in some years in that span. In any case, I found it to be an interesting fact, and it's certainly straightforward to replace a recording with a more comprehensive release by the same interpreters. These later Caron interpretations are, if anything, even more energetic. I haven't warmed to the song performances to quite the same degree, but the mass performances are some of this ensemble's best. The music, almost completely unknown prior to this attention, continues to be impressive. One simply cannot understand the history of rhythm & tempo in the 15th century without Caron, and it was a time of epochal change, in this case, a shift away from centuries of emphasis on the "perfect" (triple) time. The newly recorded masses add to this picture, although the set isn't (and probably couldn't be) as revelatory as the first recording.

Another recording fully deserves to be grouped with the two amazing releases by The Sound and the Fury, and also provides great interpretive insight into the large-scale music of this period, or in this case, a bit later. Although it includes Ockeghem in its title, there is no music by Ockeghem in the program, and the main item is actually Obrecht's Missa Sicut Rosa Spinam:

Plorer, Gemir, Crier...
Hommage à La "Voix d'Or" de Ockeghem
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Aeon 1226

The theme is homages to Ockeghem, and Obrecht's mass is seen in this light (and is not the only one of his mass cycles to borrow from Ockeghem). This is the latest (chronological) material recorded by Diabolus in Musica, and one can hear the approach taken from working with earlier music — earlier music being all any composer would have heard, of course. Diabolus in Musica's discography goes back to some of the earliest surviving substantial medieval repertory, and so their credentials of coming to Franco-Flemish polyphony from a historical position are almost unequalled, and in fact, they probably know much earlier music far better than did composers of the period. Although, after decades of neglect, Obrecht's discography has fared rather well in recent years, this disc adds tangibly to interpretations of his music, and represents a very welcome entry into the field.

Alongside those three items, there was another set of three 2012 releases that included their own revelations, although all three are from widely different repertory.

For whatever reason, recordings of the early trouvère repertory had been somewhat stagnant of late, not only in terms of number of recordings, but in the sometimes lifeless quality of the performances. There have been compelling albums devoted to the last layer of that repertory (Adam de la Halle, Lescurel, etc.), leading into the academic transformations of the Ars Nova, but for some reason, making the earlier trouvères come alive had proven challenging: recordings, to my ear, tended to be overly flat or overly affected. An interpretation that really seems to capture the spirit of this music is therefore especially welcome and groundbreaking:

Thibaut de Champagne: Le Chansonnier du Roi
Amour Courtois et Chevalerie au XIIIe siècle
Alla Francesca - Brigitte Lesne
Aeon 1221

The Alla Francesca ensemble has produced many recordings, including other trouvère material, and so is well-prepared to tackle this repertory. The result is quite compelling, and generally a part of a broader recent trend to rethink the form & structure of monophonic lyrics of the 12th & 13th centuries, much of it building on a long struggle with the trobador repertory. The "medieval lyric" seems to be quite an active area right now, and this broader discography might be restructured in the next few years. This recording devoted to the thematically intriguing music of Thibaut de Champagne is one significant step.

Likewise, the Ars Subtilior repertory continues to merit & require new investigations and ideas, although understanding is far beyond what it was when it was first recorded. Many significant explorations have already occurred, although it remains intriguing how the secular songs connecting the iconic secular music of Machaut & Dufay could be so opaque. In any event, a new recording gives us a new picture of one of the significant composers of this transitional era:

Spinato intorno al Cor
Antonio Zacara da Teramo
Currentes - Jostein Gundersen
Lawo Classics 1026

I was unfamiliar with both the ensemble and the label prior to this recording, and so it makes a happy introduction. Gundersen and his ensemble mark a new generation probing this music, combining sources to get an overall picture of a partially transmitted piece, reconstructing lines, improvising accompaniment, etc. Although it would be easy to make a mess of things by introducing so many of one's own ideas, these procedures are handled very well here, and the result ends up sounding very idiomatic to me. These songs take on even more of an individual character, and the approach points to even more possibilities for this repertory. (Mala Punica had started some of this, of course, but with a more idiosyncratic result. I should also add that I never succeeded in hearing the Micrologus recording devoted to Antonio, so cannot compare.)

Returning to the era of Franco-Flemish polyphony, and especially the development of instrumental music within that style, the Christophorus label continues to release significant efforts in this direction:

Isaac: Ein frölich Wesen
Secular and textless music
Les Flamboyants - Michael Form
Christophorus 77360

While Les Flamboyants recording devoted to Japart last year made a more distinctive impression, this recording devoted to Isaac is also quite illuminating. Isaac is interesting not so much for his work in any particular form, but for his work in so many forms & styles. Orienting a program on instrumental music (although it includes various vocal tracks as well, both as models and otherwise) provides a rather specific & intimate picture of the composer. Les Flamboyants and related ensembles also continue to advance interpretation in instrumental construction & technique.

The last couple of years have also seen purely instrumental recordings from the Renaissance that are of interest. In this case, I should probably disclaim my preferences as more idiosyncratic, but even lacking a broader historical justification, I continue to follow interpretations of specific later repertories.

Foremost among these is the English consort repertory, which is a unique and well-preserved style, articulated over a mere handful of decades. England is interesting in this period not only as it fashioned itself into a worldwide Empire, but in the late survival of many medieval elements. It's quite a clash in some ways, and leads to fascinating musical styles. Perhaps the most unusual belonged to William Lawes:

Lawes: Consorts to the organ
Phantasm - Laurence Dreyfus
Linn Records 399

Like the earlier music discussed, consort music continues to benefit from interpretations with more experience of the repertory. Although the interpretations of 20 years ago sounded good to me (as opposed to those of some of the music above), they continue to improve. There's an intimacy that comes from performing this music together, much as classical string quartets refine their group sound over decades. In this case, Phantasm themselves have recorded this music before, but with the choice to exclude the organ. Here it is restored, and the result is compelling, including passages as surprising as anything Lawes wrote. Aside from the different instruments, this could almost be early 20th century music.

Keyboard music of the period continues to be of interest, although I made the decision this year to combine my recommended keyboard page with my recommended consort page. That's the end of an era, I guess. In fact, this was the first change I made to the keyboard page since 2005, so it was feeling a bit stagnant, and I'm feeling better about evaluating these efforts within a general instrumental rubric, as opposed to a more classical-inspired view of keyboard music as singular.

That said, the following recording makes advances in the interpretation of one of the most significant composers of Renaissance keyboard music (some of it also suitable for consort):

Cabezón: Complete Tientos and Variations
Glen Wilson
Naxos 8.572475-76 [CDx2]

I've been looking for the "perfect" keyboard recording devoted to Cabezón for a while now, and I can't really say that this is it. However, Wilson's interpretation is quite worthwhile, and traces a fairly systematic path through the repertory, all performed solo. (His English recordings are probably a little more idiomatic.) Perhaps renewed attention to Cabezón will follow.

Happy 2013!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb