This has been a very strong year for recordings of music within the core Medieval & Renaissance repertory, and consequently this year's top choices could have been winners in any year going back to 1995. 1994 was an especially strong year, and 1999 is shaping up to be comparable. What sets a performance apart for me is both a coherent & compelling rendition of central repertory, as well as some new & thought-provoking aspect to the interpretation. I continue to emphasize the "central" repertory, because that is my predilection, even though various second-tier repertories thankfully continue to be brought before the public. I don't "collect" recordings, but I do make every effort to hear interpretations of interest.
Of course, none of these selections or discussions are a matter of science. I've written more elaborate disclaimers and remarks on how I choose recordings in previous years, and readers interested in those sorts of meta-issues are encouraged to read previous introductions or my column. I will cut that discussion short here. One additional thought is that what makes for a great recording is not necessarily what makes for a great concert, since the recording by its nature is listened to again & again. The concert must make an immediate impression, whereas thoughts on recorded interpretations can simmer over a longer period. Impressions can change for better or worse with familiarity.
The main contenders for my top pick this year represent rather different repertory, so it makes the comparison more difficult than it might otherwise be. Of course, there is no real reason I need to pick a single "Record of the Year" but it is a bit of fun, and a challenge which can be useful for focusing one's thoughts on both the evolution of interpretation and on the repertory itself. The idea that interpretation "evolves" is a controversial statement, and I believe it is generally without merit, at least in the sense of "progress" or other normative implications of the term. However, in the present repertory, I believe it still holds a kernel of truth. As I've repeated in the past, performers of this music simply do not have the same level of familiarity with it as do performers of Beethoven or Gershwin. Once we have a couple of full generations who grow up with the music, the idea of evolution in performance will cease to be meaningful at all.
Nowhere has a basic understanding of the repertory itself been so slow in coming as for the late medieval Ars Subtilior songs of the early 15th century. This music has been appraised incorrectly, has been chastised for certain excesses, and has generally been treated as a marginal output. However, the sheer quality of this relatively large volume of songs is now becoming apparent, and there are significant recordings devoted to it every year. In the present case, the French ensemble Alla Francesca seeks to demonstrate not how these songs ended an era, but rather how they offer points of continuity with the following generation of work, usually represented as Renaissance. The idea of "boundary" has been argued of late, but what Alla Francesca is basically doing is embracing the entire 15th century as a part of the medieval era and performing the songs of Dufay and his generation more in line with medieval concerns on articulation and tuning.
Although it would be too easy to become engrossed in the technical and theoretical issues of such an approach, the significant point here is that the wonderful Beauté parfaite program illustrates a continuity of style from the Ars Nova of Machaut to the Burgundy of Dufay & Binchois. Construction of both the program and the performances themselves reveals a virtuoso sweep which the ensemble regards as the true characteristic of the "Autumn of the Middle Ages" taken as a whole. The program includes both marvelous new takes on relatively well-known songs as well as more obscure but equally worthy tracks. This is certain to be a major program for some time to come.
Among the virtuoso performances, the recorder playing of Pierre Hamon is quite striking, especially for its use of ornament within an approach to phrasing which remains motivated by the voice. Of course, very clear diction and idiomatic phrasing are major strengths of this ensemble, and the coherency brought to what are otherwise rather convoluted songs is particularly welcome. The sheer cogency of the interpretation, and the evident identification with the songs, makes the program increasingly compelling. The solo voices of Raphaël Boulay, Brigitte Lesne, and Emmanuel Bonnardot are richly nuanced and full of subtle shadings which serve to enhance and shape the flow of the music. The program alternates moods, with the lighter songs given very bright treatments, and ornaments used to good effect without becoming dominant. Even within individual songs, instruments alternate on lines with voices or other instruments, less often doubling, but providing a shift in mood & texture. There is a basic dynamism to the program and interpretation which serves to set this entire period in a context different from the languid one to which it often defaults.
The musical sophistication and emotional depth of the Ars Subtilior has become increasingly apparent, not just in this release, but in continuing efforts by other groups such as the Huelgas Ensemble, Ferrara Ensemble, and Mala Punica. Once one follows the path of appreciation, what makes these songs so appealing is the sinewy quality of their melodies and the different rhythmic guises into which they are placed. The use of syncopation is advanced, and the counterpoint offers a broad range of harmonic coloring as well as interesting independent melodies of its own. It is against this large and potent body of work that the songs of a Binchois or a Dufay should be perceived for maximum appreciation on both ends.
Rather than release only one album of this music, Alla Francesca released two this year. I will offer the other here as a supplement to the first, as they could have as easily been a 2CD set, but the present situation does allow the curious listener to take less risk. The following program is constructed in the same way, illustrating the same styles, and again featuring a nice mix of more & less well-known works.
Alla Francesca is joined by the Alta ensemble of outdoor wind instruments, and those tracks serve to add a different scope of activity to the album as a whole. While the first program draws early strength from the surreal Fumeux fume of Solage, the second places the even more affecting lament on Machaut's death Armes, amours as its first major song. While the first starts its concluding segment with Binchois' heart-wrenching Ay, douloureux, the second places his more contrite Tant plus ayme in that position. The chronological climax is then surely the 3-voice rondeau Est-il merchy of Busnoys, a masterfully subtle composer whose songs are still under-recorded. The variety of sonority throughout the two CDs is equalled only by the integrity of the interpretive stance, making for a lasting musical experience of rare power.
As mentioned, there are several compelling recordings this year, and so the remainder of the list is particularly strong.
Although the transition from the late medieval style into the 15th century, and ultimately into the Renaissance wherever one chooses to place the boundary, can be extremely fascinating, the unified song outputs of the 15th century composers have an intensity of their own. Nowhere is this more true than in the songs of Gilles Binchois (c.1400-1460), a composer credited both with establishing the pre-eminence of the thirds-based style in Burgundy and with teaching Johannes Ockehgem. Binchois' stability and concentration on three-voice chanson writing contrast with Dufay's broader stylistic range and more cosmopolitan demeanor. Although Dufay's songs are certainly deserving of all the attention they receive, Binchois' output remains relatively unknown, especially since in their own time, Binchois' songs were more widely copied. This is due both to the range of genres in which Dufay worked and to the more restrained & subtle quality which dominates Binchois' entire oeuvre.
Not surprisingly, the combination of Binchois' elegant songs and the great French medieval Ensemble Gilles Binchois is a very pregnant one. Dominique Vellard and his ensemble have included Binchois songs on previous programs, but this is the first to be devoted entirely to them. Although it does not display the innovation which I often seek, it represents the other pinnacle of art, namely perfection. It is a program which simply must exist, and now that it does, one is struck primarily by the pure mastery of it, both on the part of the composer and on the part of the performers. Binchois' songs are a rare synthesis of convention with a rich interior life, and need a performance of this magnitude to bring them to life.
Although Dominique Vellard, one of the most distinguished performers of medieval music in the past twenty years, is often criticized for giving unemotional performances, nowhere is the fallacy of that statement so evident as in his recital of Binchois. There are no histrionics, no melodrama, quite simply no cheap effects, but there is an intense and passionate connection with the music to be performed. Although they might not reach out to grab one's ear, and Binchois' songs do not do this by their nature, once their world is broached, these interpretations are infinitely more compelling than more simplistic readings. The Ensemble Gilles Binchois always prepares extensively, and that fact is fully evident here in songs of the highest compositional polish themselves. This recording characterizes the sublimated, aching quality of the age as well as any. The singing of ravishing soprano Anne-Marie Lablaude continues to be too under-appreciated, despite more than twenty years of activity, and in this recital the ensemble also includes the solo voice of young countertenor Akira Tachikawa who is sure to intrigue many. Of course there is Dominique Vellard himself, and his clear tenor always seems to define the very nature of both the ensemble and the Burgundian love songs themselves.
The next selection is the first to represent one the crucial repertory areas of the period, the magnificent Franco-Flemish mass cycles of the 15th century. This combination of abstract melodies and architectural glory is almost unique, flowering fully before it was subsumed by the dominance of pervasive imitation and simpler approaches to text. In the mid- to late-15th century, the musical aspects are still at their height, and the result is a broad body of work featuring a combination of compelling argument and contrapuntal innovation rarely seen before or since.
The combination of the increasingly well-known motets of Ockeghem with the previously unrecorded work of Guillaume Faugues (fl.c.1460) is full of possibilities. Faugues is one of the most significant figures to develop the early Franco-Flemish cantus firmus mass, yet he remains largely unknown today. His four extant masses are contemporaneous with the late cycles of Dufay and the early work of Ockeghem, and so mark another important voice in the development of these techniques. In Faugues' case, there is a predilection toward cycles unified through literal repetition, perhaps foreshadowing Franck(!), as well as an increased fascination with bass voices shared with Ockeghem. The Missa la basse danse is a very broadly conceived cycle, with many original moments, not to mention the historical distinction of basing a mass cycle on an instrumental dance tune. Together with the four authentic vocal motets of Ockeghem, the present recording contains one of the few instrumental masterpieces of the period, his puzzle canon Ut heremita solus, as performed by recorder consort.
The choice of recorder consort for the instrumental motet, and its short interlocking motives, is actually suggestive of the vocal performance and its emphasis on high, light voices. This is easily one of the most striking interpretations to emerge in recent years, with a rare energy level and an unusually angular quality to the phrasing. The intonation is also highly intriguing, paralleling the "late medieval" approach of Alla Francesca above (of which director Emmanuel Bonnardot is also a member), and approaching the works of Faugues & Ockeghem from a clear medieval context, rather than the more Renaissance-oriented ideas on performance practice with which this music is usually prepared. The intonation can be surprisingly different at times, especially in its use of some microtonal divisions and slurs as outlined by medieval authors such as Marchettus. Ultimately, the choices are quite successful, and serve to provide a new sense of impetus and motivation for many of the compositional choices in both Ockeghem & Faugues. One certainly gets the sense that Ockeghem is stretching the medium, with its combination of Pythagorean intervals, to its limit, rather than merely marking time until the High Renaissance. It is therefore a set of choices which serves to emphasize the revolutionary character of the music. Beyond these details, which may not be apparent to all listeners, the ensemble combinations are stimulating. There is a genuinely light texture with great clarity, and a willingness to change ensemble constitution based on relative tessitura in the individual works. The preparation and dedication are quite evident, as expressed both in the unity of vision as well as the confidence with which the phrases are so clearly declaimed.
Ars Antigua polyphony is one area which is fairly well-covered on recording, especially for the Notre Dame school. Approaches to performing this music are moving more into the realm of refinement and personal interpretation than merely getting some superficially correct results. That has been the case for the past ten years or more, especially since the rather perilous and uneffective "modal rhythm" idea was softened. Of course, Notre Dame polyphony is still one of the West's most impressive musical statements, and that fact is underscored by the reception this repertory finds with the general public. Although the organum genre, as built upon a plainchant base, is the best known, the conductus genre of this era contains both compelling counterpoint and original melodic material. It deserves to be more widely known.
Together with a wide range of pieces in conductus style for from one to four voices, including some attributed to Perotin, the following program also contains some works in other genres of the time, including the emerging motet. It presents one of the most compelling glimpses of the originality in both text & melody which inspired the conductus writers to build upon the techniques of organum.
The Ensemble Diabolus in Musica continues to make impressive contributions to this repertory, after being mostly unknown only last year. The present performance exemplifies a range of interpretation which accommodates the smallest melodic nuance within an emphatically phrased vision of the larger forms. The diction & articulation are especially impressive in this production, as is the range of vocal sonority. Syllabic material is handled with finesse and insight, and lower lines are projected with an earthy vigor which this ensemble continues to cultivate. The integrity of the overall vision of the Notre Dame repertory is totally compelling, allowing this performance to establish itself as one of lasting consequence.
Beyond the landmark program of Faugues & Ockeghem released by Obsidienne, there were several highly significant recordings of mass cycles from the peak of the Franco-Flemish art available this year. This is some of the most complex and compelling music in the entire Western canon, and something which continues to be elusive in performance. Nowhere is the debate on musica ficta (unwritten accidentals) so intense, and nowhere is the scope of detail awaiting coherent performance so immense. Fundamentally this is abstract music, appearing mostly prior to the point at which melody & harmony were placed in subservience to text, but the proper nuance of vocal articulation combined with larger motion requires a non-trivial balance of performance concerns. This has been an important year for new and worthwhile approaches.
First is a continuation by Gothic Voices of their entry into this repertory, this time with an important program devoted to the sublime but relatively neglected Pierre de la Rue (c.1460-1518). Hopefully this fine recording can serve to increase interest in La Rue's music, which combines a rare subtlety & grace with some of the most involved technical concerns of the era. It may therefore present more barriers to appreciation than that of many of his contemporaries, but it will ultimately repay any investment.
The performance itself exhibits both the traditional strengths and weaknesses of Gothic Voices. There is an excellent clarity of line, and a combined vocal texture which provides both lucid individual sonorities and a total harmony. However, there is a lack of nuance, a tendency to gloss over some details, and a basic detachment which becomes apparent on sufficient exposure. In the present case, there is also good energy and a greater comfort level with the idea of performing mass cycles of this scope. This is clearly a performance of consequence.
In the year following his anniversary, Ockeghem may have been as well-served on record, if not better. The recent batch of renditions and complementary listener appreciation has served to confirm Ockeghem's stature today. Interest in the work of Rebecca Stewart and the Cappella Pratensis ensemble has also been rising, and they contribute to the Ockeghem revolution with an interpretation of music which is somewhat earlier than their usual focus on the generation of Josquin.
This is one of the more innovative and intriguing interpretations on the list, combining an admirable willingness to readdress some of the underlying performance issues with a sometimes frustrating tendency to rely on a mystical latency over emphatic statement. The performance as a whole projects a strongly pensive quality, and is generally performed quietly. The sonority of the voices is non-standard and certainly interesting. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the interpretation is the approach to tempo, in which relationships proceed more along an internal rhythm than a metronomic clock. It can be difficult to pick up the pulse of the performance, but once realized, it is consistent with itself and does exhibit the proper relationships. All of these changes from the more usual performance idioms combine to allow this rendition to exhibit some aspects of the cycle more clearly than they have been in the past while obscuring some others.
A program combining a major Early Music work with a 20th century composition in a completely different style is certainly a rarity for this list, but the recent Dufay program by the previously unknown "Young Soloists" (some of whose members have participated in better-known ensembles) makes a strong case for inclusion. This is not the place to discuss the postmodern style of Thierry Pécou, but it should be noted that it a relatively quiet work in the most oblique French commentary mode.
The performance of Dufay's Missa L'Homme armé is a fine one. It is nicely nuanced, with both a good overall pacing and a balance of vocal sonority between line & ensemble. Regular readers will know that I tend to prefer French singers in this repertory, and so the articulation and diction are more satisfactory. Unfortunately, the production itself is recorded rather quietly in a big acoustic so that the articulation becomes more difficult to hear than it might have been. Although the modern work is clearly intended to frame the entire conception, of which Dufay is only a part, the Dufay mass performance holds up on its own merits.
The wonderful body of instrumental music from the 16th century is still relatively neglected, but it does receive a slow trickle of attention. Perhaps one barrier to a wider appreciation is the fact that instrumentation in that time was looser, and consequently offers a greater freedom for the performers, but makes it harder for the listener to identify repertory with one particular instrument. There is also the abstract quality of the music, as it built upon the previous generation of polyphony, especially as the contemporaneous vocal polyphony was forced to give a greater prominence to text. The keyboard was supreme throughout this era, although it is now clear that in many cases instrumental ensemble arrangements naturally occurred from keyboard scores.
Although he has long been one of the unquestioned geniuses of early original keyboard composition, Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) continues to be relatively under-recorded. This has changed substantially in the past few years, but appreciation has been slower to develop. For one thing the Spanish keyboard forms are relatively unfamiliar, but it should be natural to hear these essentially variation forms from the same perspective which has made the English keyboard music of the period successful. I happen to be partial to the stringed keyboard instruments, moreso than the organ, and so a harpsichord recital devoted to Cabezón is especially welcome.
The present program is a very good one, illustrating all of Cabezón's major forms. It gives one the opportunity to appraise some of the richness of contrapuntal treatment of which he was capable. The performance of Enrico Baiano is self-assured and articulate, never allowing itself to wallow in the more languid moments. It is well-conceived, exhibiting a good feel for the music and what drives it forward. There is less variation in harpsichord sonority than might be desirable, but the basic lucidity of the interpretation makes it one of consequence.
Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) is perhaps the most important Italian keyboard composer of the later 16th century, yet basically unknown outside of pedagogical surveys. Although his music lacks some of the variety of Cabezón's, it is of nearly comparable stature, especially in its early exploration of "toccata" ideas. Merulo was a true figure of his age, engaged in all manner of investigations of the period, including the occult. The clean contours of his music mask some hidden meanings, and basically a new approach to how the keyboard could be used on its own.
Fabio Bonizzoni is one of the rising stars of early keyboard music. His playing combines a rare touch & sensitivity with an instinctive understanding of the music. Merulo's toccatas can seem like an endless and pointless stream of ornamentation without a rational organization to make sense of them, and Bonizzoni more than addresses this problem. The present interpretation argues forcefully for this music, and may serve to buoy interest in Merulo. The phrasing is impeccable, and the combination of strength & lightness is sorely needed, since finding the right "bounce" is often the most difficult aspect of performing Renaissance keyboard music. Organ & harpsichord technique are equally accomplished. Bonizzoni's recording of Andrea Gabrieli on Stradivarius this year is also one of definite consequence, even if the music has less scope.
Besides the landmark entries devoted to the secular music of the end of the medieval era, this year also saw a fine interpretation of an earlier standard source by a young & relatively unknown ensemble. The Codex Reina is preserved in Venice, and is paradoxically one of the primary sources for French Ars Nova songs beyond Machaut. The program is well-chosen, and complements existing selections well.
The clarity and sonorities of this ensemble are particularly welcome. There can be an "edge" to the sound which is appealing to me, and the articulation is always excellent, even from the instruments. The phrasing is impeccable in the tradition of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and the variety of instrumental sonority is impressive without being overbearing. This is the sort of unpretentious release which will seem all the more impressive after this young ensemble makes a bigger name for itself.
The Clerks' Group have always had a penchant for recording music of very high interest to me, but as regular readers will know, I have been rather ambivalent toward their interpretations. They have a tendency to lapse into the stereotypical English vocal sonorities & phrasings, neither of which I find particularly appropriate to the Franco-Flemish repertory. In that sense, they have been a source of some frustration, but their progress has also been steady. This year the interpretations really come into their own, and begin to build a personal connection with the music. Some of the negative factors remain, but in diminished form, and replaced partly by an increasing knowledge of the individual works and style of the time.
This was also the year in which the Clerks' Group branched out, devoting major programs to composers other than Ockeghem. Each of the three recordings listed below would have easily made this list based on its own merit, and so it is too tempting to group the comments for all three together in this way. I only hope that the Clerks' Group and Edward Wickham can continue this level of development in the coming years.
Perhaps the most impressive of the three is their Obrecht program, especially as the kind of drive & "spectacle" which Obrecht sometimes employs can fit their style more easily. The Missa Malheur me bat is an important work in the transition to the High Renaissance, and the accompanying Martini motets are also very welcome on disc.
Next is the first significant release devoted specifically to Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435-c.1511), the most important theorist of the time. Tinctoris' compositions have appeared on a few anthologies, but remained basically unknown until this very welcome recital. Although perhaps not quite up to the level of contemporaries like Dufay (and Tinctoris' music tends to be rather old-fashioned) and Ockeghem, there are several interesting contrapuntal ideas found in these works.
Finally, the Clerks have continued their Ockeghem series by selecting a program which does not compete with other recent recordings. Combined with the progress in their style, that makes it a summit in the series thus far. Ockeghem needs no further introduction, but these masses continue to show the breadth of idea of which he was capable as well as the sheer "magic" which can be said to propel his counterpoint.
The digression to record both Obrecht & Tinctoris seems to have allowed the Clerks' Group to come back to Ockeghem with a new perspective. There is an increased tendency to let Ockeghem's majesty speak for itself, and not to shout out in those husky voices at the first sign of something interesting. I eagerly await the future issues.
I hope I haven't been too discursive this year. Happy 1999!
To Recording of the Year pageTodd M. McComb