It's time to choose my Early Music Record of the Year for 1996, and this year presents many challenges. While we were without any truly ground-breaking projects, there were more top notch productions than ever before. That made the choices the most difficult yet. Before I get to the point, let me step back with some meta-comments.
Of course, in the disclaimer department, these are just my own personal opinions, and I make no apology for being deeply prejudiced. The most obvious place is repertory, where my interests are toward the abstract and slow to a trickle by the time we reach the 16th & 17th centuries with their explicit word painting. So while I can intellectually affirm some of the fine programs from other repertories produced this year, I do not appreciate them directly and hence they will not appear on this list. This is the early music which touches me, and I'll capriciously title it "Medieval & Renaissance" even if it sometimes includes a splash of Baroque.
While I certainly can't claim to have heard everything of merit, I can make the rather strong statement of having spent as much time listening to these recordings and studying this music in the past year as is humanly possible. That certainly won't make up for the basic idiosyncrasy of my opinions, something I would not want to imply, but rather serves to affirm their entrenchment and hopefully their consistency. Whether this is a meritorious pursuit is a topic best left for another day.
My choice for Record of the Year comes as a surprise to me, but I feel compelled to go with my gut reaction. After choosing two recordings of 15th century sacred music in a row, and staring hard at the near inevitability of such a choice in the coming Ockeghem year, I feel a little silly picking one this year, but so be it. As regular readers might know, I have been aggressively critical of the Tallis Scholars' earlier efforts in the Franco-Flemish domain, and consequently greeted their release this year with more than a little trepidation. I was certain it would be a mixed blessing -- a mass I desperately wanted to hear in a performance I desperately didn't. Marvelously, the latter was not the case and so my choice is:
The work itself is the longest of the Franco-Flemish masses, a monstrous piece of polyphony more than an hour long. Every imaginable device is combined in such a seamless and inevitable fashion that I continue to be held spellbound from beginning to end. The derivation of sequences from the basic motivic fragments is inspired, for instance. One can find in musicological texts the assertion that Obrecht (along with Ockeghem & Palestrina) was one of the few Renaissance masters who did their best work on the larger canvasses, and this mass proves it conclusively. While a stylistic dead end, it is indeed an end in itself.
On the performance side, it is difficult for me to speak of the Tallis Scholars in anything but negative language, so let me continue that. In this case, they did not continue their earlier dubious interpretations of tempo relationships, and they did not impose a treble-dominated sound. Indeed, Peter Phillips seems to have let the work come to him, so to speak, and finally the pure vocal talent of the singers can be put to good effect in a demanding work such as this. The mind boggles wondering who Obrecht might have imagined could sing this wide-ranging piece, but here he has them in eight singers aligned two to a part. Ultimately, what makes this performance particularly satisfying to me is that the articulatory stress fits the music in a way their Josquin simply never did. So let me finally give the Tallis Scholars their due and call this performance impressive, nearly awe-inspiring. If there is any justice, this disc will be heard far more widely than that wretched Pange lingua.
Building on so many fine programs of early medieval polyphony and reinterpretations of plainchant before Solesmes, Dominique Vellard now tackles the great sphinx of early polyphony, the pitch-less Chartres manuscripts. Of course, interpretation of the pitch-less chant manuscripts of the era has gone on for some years now, but this was the first major program of polyphony. Even if it remains somewhat conjectural, many aspects can be stated with strong confidence, and the ultimate result is deeply compelling in a way that only the ample preparation time Ensemble Gilles Binchois has at their disposal can yield. It serves to put the later Aquitaine & Notre Dame polyphony into perspective, and more than anything else astounds by its musical variety. Polyphony apparently grew more conservative during the first phase of its notated development. However, for all of its inherent interest, this release never grabs me and refuses to let go.
This is the debut recording from this ensemble, directed by Emmanuel Bonnardot of Ensemble Gilles Binchois and other famous groups. The main piece here is clearly the Barcelona Mass, a somewhat divergent collection of sacred compositions pieced together to form one of the earliest surviving mass cycles. Aside from Machaut, fourteenth century sacred polyphony is relatively under-explored on recording lately, and so this release is quite valuable. The interpretation is remarkable for the level of detail it shows, yielding moments of pure musical delight. The companion Song of Sibyl is also not to be under-estimated, and while I certainly cannot say anything against the great Montserrat Figueras, the truth is that I enjoy the voice of Gisela Bellsola more. Hers is a Sibyl to be heard. Heresy, I know.
Ensemble Micrologus has been around quite a while now, but finally seems to be getting their due recognition while recording for Opus 111. Indeed, this is their second recording devoted to the Codex Rossi (previously on Quadrivium), the earliest surviving Italian Ars Nova manuscript. Several of the songs here are well-known from other collections, while several others are new revelations. However, what really sets this release apart is the performance. This is a case where the fit between interpretive style and repertory seems absolutely perfect to me, and so I broach the "D" word, definitive. While the early style of the Codex Rossi, was largely upstaged by the Florentine style and such greats as Landini, it retains a freshness and a closeness to the native Italian genres which were ultimately crushed by the French invasion.
One of the unique cycles of the troubadour era, performed here in a sensitive rendition which highlights both the secular & sacred aspects.
An original theme for a medieval program, and a genuinely brilliant debut from this young ensemble. The razor-sharp quality of the voices is highly appealing, as is the imaginative yet supportive instrumentation.
The third volume of this series, and another must-hear in the difficult development of the Ars Subtilior song repertory. In each effort Mala Punica has increased their attention to detail, although I still find too much emphasis on ostinato and treble voice.
A previously unknown masterpiece of 3-voice counterpoint, performed with a superb understanding of the nuts & bolts of 15th-century polyphony.
A wonderful performance of a beautiful composition of Dufay, easily preferable to the other release this year. Not the most important composition or the most thought-provoking performance, but simply beautiful.
A sensitive and dynamic keyboard interpretation of one of the monuments of the early published instrumental repertory, issued from the circle of Adrian Willaert in Venice and of huge historical influence. The instruments chosen are also a feature.
One of the original geniuses of the late Renaissance, Le Jeune is still overlooked. This is a selection of excerpts from his masterpiece cycle, performed with the fine clarity for which the ensemble is known.
Another recording of the Purcell fantazias, and although it might appear I am severely infatuated with the music, I am simply compelled to mention this extraordinary interpretation. It is quite simply the finest viol consort performance I have heard (ironically Fretwork's recording was a choice here last year).
To Recording of the Year pageTodd M. McComb