Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2013

This was another year where I wondered if there would be much to report here, but as in previous such occasions, there was a little burst of compelling material toward the end, putting this list at a fairly customary (at this point) six items. It's interesting to think back to times when medieval music seemed so much more popular — and maybe that was illusory to a degree, and based more on the earlier generation of the recorded music industry, or indeed my continuing attempt to cling to CD album releases as entity markers. Regardless of where the popularity may be today, there continue to be extremely worthwhile offerings. I don't believe there is any shortage of ideas regarding interesting courses of study or possible recording projects.

Recording of the Year

Although it was very tempting to continue the run of large-scale fifteenth century polyphony that often opens this space, I decided to opt for an updated approach to well-known repertory, Machaut's songs, in what is a fairly arbitrary choice among other strong releases:

Machaut: Mon chant vous envoy
Mauillon / Mauillon / Biffi / Hamon
Eloquentia 1342

This album does not mark any particular break from previous styles, and indeed it is this ensemble's third Machaut-centered recording, but it is time to give more acknowledgement to this progressive refinement of French style. In particular, the elegance of the instrumental support, and the way the tuning fits with the different voice parts, is most impressive here. There's a sonic coherence that, whereas it might be felt most strongly in the smallest spaces, nonetheless animates the phrasing & development. It's also amazing to note that it's now been 25 years since Ensemble Gilles Binchois' first Machaut classic was recorded — and that album features Pierre Hamon, who directs the unnamed ensemble here: Reprising the iconic opening virelai Dame, vostre dous viaire from that recording signifies the new era of performance for me, even if there remain so many similarities. Altogether, this is simply a very enjoyable recording, reminding us so forcefully of Machaut's epochal brilliance. (And probably not coincidental to this choice, those readers who follow my jazz thoughts will soon find a rather lengthy article there inspired in part by Machaut, as well as the Mirror to Machaut jazz release already there.)

Other compelling items...

The Sound and the Fury has done it again with another exciting Ockeghem release, this one a double album. I feel I've gotten a bit repetitive in praising this ensemble and this series, but once again they manage to make some of Ockeghem's most technical music sound new:

Ockeghem: Missæ Cuiusvis toni & Prolationum
The Sound and the Fury
Fra Bernardo 130 220 2 [CDx2]

The album reprises the ensemble's own earlier recording of the Missa Prolationum (one of their first, and not an album I found especially compelling at the time), as well as takes a new approach to the enigmatic Cuiusvis toni. It was only 2007 that the latter first received what I thought was a satisfactory performance, from Ensemble Musica Nova, and perhaps it is no coincidence that Ensemble Musica Nova also released a Missa Prolationum album this year, also very worthwhile. There's a new generation of interpretations of Ockeghem's sacred music starting to take shape. (The secular music is languishing, relatively.)

Another group that continues to produce highly worthwhile releases is Ensemble Leones. (Their releases seem to fit together well with those by Les Flamboyants, also on Christophorus — a label with unknown US distribution, at the moment — and another group featuring Marc Lewon.) Although the program is not as novel as their Josquin release of 2011, they nonetheless bring considerable technique & experience to Agricola:

Colours in the Dark
The Instrumental Music of Alexander Agricola
Ensemble Leones - Marc Lewon
Christophorus 77368

Agricola is one composer of the period whose secular music is relatively well recorded, and so this release seems almost like a luxury. It is a very welcome luxury, however, and provides wonderful precision & sense of sonority to these fairly well-known tunes.

Regular readers will know that I have been bemoaning the state of c.1500 secular music on record for the past several years (and did so already in this article), and so it's with some relief that I can finally cite an updated interpretation of some of Josquin's more polyphonically oriented songs:

Se congie prens
Chansons à cinq et six parties de Josquin Desprez
Ensemble Musica Nova - Lucien Kandel
Raum Klang 3201

It's also interesting that it's Ensemble Musica Nova to take on this project, since their previous activities, as far as I know, were confined to music of earlier generations. Regular readers will also likely be aware that I have a special fondness for medieval or Renaissance interpretations undertaken by ensembles who mostly work in somewhat earlier music, making it easier to give a program a more forward-looking perspective (rather than the backward facing orientation so natural to the position of "early music"), and so I'm doubly pleased. I don't really understand the choice to include so much non-Josquin music, particularly the later organ pieces, but the program is nonetheless very enjoyable. It provides quite a contrast with the Ensemble Leones recording just mentioned, and hopefully there will be more soon. This program feels more like a step in the right direction than anything definitive.

Although it took me a little while to get on board (I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit), Graindelavoix continues to be one of the most creative ensembles working in this area today. I would say it's not so much their approach to performance that sustains that creativity at this point — even though their style of ensemble singing was distinctive when it first appeared — but rather their social research into historical connections, and some of the novel programs those connections suggest. This year, an ongoing orientation toward a polymath organ builder yields a program oriented on the confraternity:

Confréries - Devotional songs by Jaikes de Cambrai
Villard de Honnecourt: Métier, memories and travels of a 13th-century cathedral builder, vol. 2
Graindelavoix - Björn Schmelzer
Glossa 32108

For one thing, the interpretive approach to the trouvère repertory is very worthwhile here. While it continues on Graindelavoix's style from other albums, its application to the trouvères is relatively different; that continues to be a repertory undergoing significant exploration of late, I would say finally getting out from under the shadow of its older step-brother, the troubadour repertory. Although the featured composer here, Jaikes de Cambrai, would appear to be a marginal figure in music history, that is somewhat the point of this album: The reuse of material and formation into local stylistic aggregates was characteristic of the period. And whereas we might not view Jaikes as the most original figure, the resulting music certainly does not lack for enjoyable qualities.

Making a circle with my choice to open this discussion, the Orlando Consort has undertaken a Machaut Edition for Hyperion, based on the new scholarly Machaut edition being published by the University of Michigan. It remains to be seen how extensive this recorded collection might become, but the the first record already contains Machaut's most extensive late cycle:

Machaut: Songs from Le voir dit
The Orlando Consort Machaut Edition
Orlando Consort
Hyperion 67727

These are all-vocal renditions in the English style, but with updated texts & accidentals etc. via the long-awaited edition. I don't find the differences to be terribly striking, although the variety of details that need attention in Machaut's body of songs is extensive. (A look at the texts contained on this site will quickly reveal that there are problems of fragmentation and/or abbreviation.) This is an appealing program for now, and could develop into a more significant collection with time.

I also feel as though I should add a special note about John Potter's & Christopher O'Gorman's second conductus volume, also on Hyperion. This series has already become rather interesting, the most experimental here from the very technical perspective of the smallest rhythm & melody, but I've been waiting for the announced three volumes before writing more. So perhaps next year.

Happy 2014!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb