Medieval & Renaissance Recording of the Year - 1997

Choosing a Record of the Year never seems to get easier, and 1997 is no exception. Nonetheless, I hope that my personal choices will be interesting to some readers. Those who don't care about tedious disclaimers and minutia can skip the next paragraph....

It should go without saying that these are my personal choices. While many idiosyncracies are certainly inherent, I do continue to spend a few hundred hours every year listening to and thinking about new recordings as well as the underlying music. Long-time readers will likely know that I am a "repertory snob" and so do not select fabulous performances of music of lesser interest. Within that context, I try to at least hear a few tracks on every release featuring what I consider to be a major program, plus a sampling of the others. While I don't set repertory preferences in stone, and they do shift somewhat, I'm forced to admit that they haven't changed this year. By way of redemption, my preferences are fairly typical within many circles, and might be characterized as abstract or even austere. Although the present title is "Medieval & Renaissance," what I really mean is music which continues to take a medieval approach to aesthetic. That includes roughly half the Renaissance repertory, by a vague pseudo-calculation, and even some of the Baroque. I include those releases which first appeared in 1997, and which I managed to obtain in 1997, but do not limit myself to major labels.

Each of the past three years I've selected a recording of fifteenth century sacred polyphony, and given that Johannes Ockeghem is easily one of my favorite composers, I fully expected to select an Ockeghem program in this his anniversary year. That didn't happen, so a few remarks are in order. There were several quality Ockeghem issues this year, effectively transforming his discography, but none stood out from the crowd decisively, and even the choices I've made here have been difficult. From my perspective the Ockeghem bonanza was certainly the most notable development of 1997, but the relative similarity of so many issues probably prevented one of them from leaping to the "top of my chart" as it may well have done if released by itself. On the other hand, although Ockeghem did quite well in 1997, unfortunately Landini fared much less well in his anniversary year. In fact, there was only a single obscure release for one of Western history's greatest composers. Of course there were many other fine issues this year, in nearly every genre & style. This list will hopefully show some of that variety.

Although of smaller scale & scope than so many other new CDs of high merit, my choice must be for the issue which grabbed me most strongly and resonated most forcefully in my mind. Since I almost never listen to a recording more than two or three times in a week, I should note that I left this one on auto-repeat for two days. Since it arrived in North America with little comment, it remains rather unassuming, but is sure to be one of the reference renditions of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) songs for some years to come.

Machaut: Ay mi! - Lais et virelais / Emmanuel Bonnardot
Opus 111 30-171

While not as varied in sonority as the Ensemble Gilles Binchois release in which Bonnardot took part, and consisting almost exclusively of Machaut's monophonic repertory, this CD nonetheless makes a big impact with modest means. The program is centered on Bonnardot's baritone voice, with self-accompaniment on bowed or sometimes plucked strings. A few of the better-known songs are performed instrumentally. On a couple of tracks, the instrumental part is Machaut's, but the rest are monophonic with a discreet improvised accompaniment to amplify certain figures and sustain sonority. The singing is the main feature, and here the results are splendid indeed. With precise diction and intonation, an unforced phrasing and a pace which never seems to lag, Bonnardot achieves an incredibly articulate clarity without sacrificing the mellifluous quality of the songs themselves. As such, this disc stands firmly between other endeavors which tend to err on one side or the other. Even the instrumental tracks, such as the stunning performance of the stand-by Douce dame jolie on solo rebec, set new standards for inflection and articulation.

It is almost impossible to overstate either Machaut's influence or the quality of his songs, so the significance of the program goes without saying. It should however be noted that many of these songs show Machaut most clearly as the heir to the trouvère style, making articulation of the poetry that much more crucial, and evoking natural comparisons with various other renditions of troubadour repertory. Here Machaut's singular genius shines in almost stark clarity against the flexible internal rhythms of his songs as brought out so naturally in this performance. This absorbing release should establish Machaut's monophonic lyrical forms as the masterpieces which they are.

Other releases of similar merit

Here I must begin with Ockeghem....

Ockeghem: De plus en plus - Fors seulement / Schola Discantus
Lyrichord 8029

These are dazzling contrapuntal works, both brilliantly original, and both unavailable on disc until this year. Of course, that situation was more than merely remedied, with four major recordings of the former and three of the latter appearing. The present selection is Schola Discantus' second Ockeghem recording, and shows a noticeable improvement in vocal sonority & execution. Like their earlier release, this one features an extremely clear presentation of polyphony and compelling ficta choices. Both masses are among Ockeghem's best, and although the latter for five voices is a torso only, it contains some of his most profound contrapuntal passages. The former is one of his most virtuosic masses, perhaps explaining its sudden popularity. Although this selection is from a relatively unknown ensemble and goes against stiff competition, it more than holds its own, making it the most compelling Ockeghem issue this year. The lucidity with which the smallest contrapuntal details are presented is simply unequalled to date, highlighting the internal cogency of the music.

Antonio de Cabezón / Trio Unda Maris
La mà de guido 2014

Although Antonio de Cabezón has long held a distinguished place among sixteenth century instrumental composers, dedicated programs have been slow to appear. The present recital makes a big splash with its variety of arrangement, as well as its choice of keyboard instruments. The style of arrangement is justified in contemporary sources, although the inherent quality of the recital never leads one to question it. There isn't a dull moment from beginning to end, yet the abstract forms are rendered with the most profound insight. The keyboard playing is both articulate and powerfully expressive, while the recorder adds a brilliant virtuosity. This is heart-felt and intelligent musicianship which brings these pieces to life as they had never been before and puts past turgid efforts to shame.

Josquin: Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae / A Sei Voci
Astrée 8601
Josquin: Missa Gaudeamus / A Sei Voci
Astrée 8612

With these two programs, A Sei Voci confirmed its intention to record Josquin's complete sacred output, making it sensible to treat them together. Although their first Astrée issue (Missa Ave maris stella) had a powerful impact on me, the second (Missa De Beata Virgine) not only followed several high-quality performances of the same mass but even another effort by A Sei Voci itself on another label! So these two programs represent a noticeable point of moving forward. Although it might seem as if they've settled into a routine, if only out of necessity, nothing is farther from the truth. The most striking facet of the cycle is that every release has used a differently constituted ensemble and style of presentation. With their evident passion and commitment to variety, A Sei Voci's survey will be a milestone for years to come.

And the honorable mention list....

Ockeghem: De plus en plus - Au travail suis / Tallis Scholars
Gimell 454 935

Given the virtuosic orientation of the former mass, the Tallis Scholars are a natural choice for its performance. The latter mass was previously unavailable, and is a relatively more simple work based on what has always been to me one of the most striking chansons of the period. Although a relatively "neutral" rendition, a clear texture is maintained throughout, allowing some fine passages to shine.

Richard Coeur de Lion / Alla Francesca
Opus 111 30-170

The latest offering from Alla Francesca continues in the mode of their other recitals from the era, featuring monophony with a variety of instrumentation. Although most items in the program are available in several other performances, some of these tracks are personal favorites. The performance style continues to improve in both lucidity and sumptuousness.

La Chambre des Dames / Diabolus in Musica
Studio SM 2604

The debut album for this French ensemble features the rondeaus of Adam de la Halle along with trouvère songs. The execution is superb, and the overall conception brings out both the lyrical grace and earthy grit of the music. They released another recording this year, featuring medieval rounds, and although simpler in substance it makes a similar impact.

Fleurs de vertus / Ferrara Ensemble
Arcana 40

This is the next in a line of programs from the fourteenth & fifteenth century for the Ferrara Ensemble, and probably their most fully idiomatic execution to date. The choice of material is excellent, as is the relaxed style of singing.

Magister Leoninus / Red Byrd
Hyperion 66944

Twelth century France seems like quite a departure for the Red Byrd ensemble, but here they bring the same attention to detail and diction that informs their English Renaissance work. The result is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the lightest & most supple vocal lines in the organum discography.

Passion / Orlando Consort
Metronome 1015

This fine program of Franco-Flemish polyphony is a clear winner for the Orlando Consort. It is perhaps the group's most consistently articulated and flawlessly presented program, and easily one of the best surveys of the motets of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries available today.

Ockeghem: Chansons / Romanesque
Ricercar 206 302

With the renewed attention given to Ockeghem's sacred music, this release devoted to his secular songs is also valuable. Although the performances do not supplant the classic complete set, they bring some new insights to the music. The usual ensemble is soprano with instrumental support, making for a very clear texture.

Dunstable / Clemencic Consort
Arte Nova 34055

Dunstable's discography has improved markedly in recent years, and this is an excellent program, concentrating on the core of his output in the 3-voice hymns. The presentation is clear and the performance particularly self-assured. The inclusion of organ intabulations adds another point of interest. Finally, coming from the super-budget Arte Nova label, this is clearly the "Medieval Value of the Year."

Happy 1998!

To Recording of the Year page

Todd M. McComb