Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 1999

This is the sixth year I have been doing this, and so I will continue to dispense with many of the introductory remarks. The same perspectives apply as in previous years, those write-ups are still around, and so I will refrain from repeating many of the same statements about personal choice and my priorities. The one salient point I must continue to emphasize is that I am a repertory-oriented person, and so will not give nearly the credit to outstanding performances of relatively uninteresting repertory which might be due otherwise. Likewise, quality recordings of repertory for which equally good recordings already exist will not get much attention, unless they have some original point to make. In terms of practicality for the regular reader, sometimes the older recordings which prevent certain quality examples from appearing on my lists are out of print. As a matter of principle, I do not let this unfortunate fact affect these lists, although I feel a certain compassion for the reader in this regard.

These are recordings which continue to make an impression over repeated and intensified listening. There are always those other recordings which make an impression, but an impression which quickly fades. I try to leave them off this list, although in many cases they are well worth hearing. That said, I had trouble filling the list this year. Although the top several items are very strong, much of what is appearing now is a rehash of the same old stuff in the same old performance styles. Although such a trend is inevitable, and actually shows a certain maturity coming to modern apprehension of this repertory, it does not lend itself to my idea of a great recording. However, in many ways, this progression only serves to set the top several items here more sharply in relief.

Because of the relative brevity, and frankly the ease of making the choices this year, I am not going to make any topical divisions or pseudo-categories. What follows is a straight countdown, with a few subheadings just for fun. I have also resisted the urge to make any choices reflecting a period longer than a year. I think we have all had more than enough of that.

Record of the Year

There were other very strong releases this year, but my choice stood out quite clearly as special. Ever since Davitt Moroney brought his lucid touch and singable phrasing to Byrd's keyboard work in a notable set more than ten years ago, there have been plans to record a larger selection. In the meantime, Moroney has won Gramophone awards for his Bach, has appeared in notable public recitals, and has essentially established himself as one of the most sensitive & insightful early keyboard musicians. The path of the successor to his landmark Byrd set was equally rich, almost torturous, passing as it did through the hands of Virgin/EMI to Hyperion as it was recorded over the course of seven years. After extensive post-production, it finally appeared in the wake of high expectations, and it more than met them.

Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music
Davitt Moroney
Hyperion 66551/7 (7 CDs)

The imposing size of this collection is certainly notable, as is the "complete" moniker. Hyperion has indicated some willingness to release a single disc anthology for those intimidated by the complete set, although the complete set suffers virtually no decline in quality anywhere in its duration. Indeed, it serves to confirm almost triumphantly both the uniquely high quality of Byrd's keyboard writing as well as Moroney's interpretive skill. The variety of keyboard instruments, the principal one constructed specifically for this project, is impressive. The tuning is both clearly conceived and clearly described, adopting a distinct Renaissance stance which serves to "spice" the interpretations accordingly. Most of all, the phrasing leaves nothing hanging awkwardly, and ultimately makes everything about every piece make sense.

The full collection does remain imposing. Each disc rewards individual attention, and gives up its wonder in nuance only slowly. Multiplied seven times over, it will take years to fully wrap one's mind around it as a whole. The documentation and production values are barely less impressive. Moroney argues every detail, not to mention Byrd's stature as a keyboard composer, passionately. Each piece is given a discussion, and each piece is given individual interpretive attention. The sound, with the possible & difficult exception of balancing the clavichord volume against the harpsichord in succession, is wonderful and given personal attention. The result is a set which is a new landmark for both Renaissance keyboard repertory and its interpretation on record. This is one case where there is no "compromise" as so often plagues complete programs: Here we have the very best program with the very best interpretation. Moroney & Byrd will likely be linked forever.

That Byrd continues to be much better known as a composer for voice is certainly no accident. His choral output is impressive, giving him both his honorary title as England's greatest composer, as well as (together with Palestrina & Lassus) a near-ubiquitous acknowledgement as one of the finest composers of the late Renaissance. The situation for England in this era, cloistered as it was for much of the sixteenth century, is rather unique. It entered Byrd's tenure as one of Europe's most conservative countries, and ended it as one of its most progressive. Nowhere is this compression of development reflected more clearly than in Byrd's keyboard output. There were already significant & individual keyboard composers in Spain & Italy prior to Byrd, but Byrd's output makes a major splash in the overall repertory nonetheless. In England, it was virtually unprecedented, pulling an entire school in its wake, one which unfortunately vanished almost as quickly as it appeared (only to be reborn in Germany, perhaps making a worthy supplemental rationale for the phoenix epithet so commonly given to Byrd).

In Byrd's keyboard music, there is a fundamental Renaissance emphasis on counterpoint and singable phrasing, but also a proto-Baroque fascination with rhythm & sonority. Through this combination, all of which Moroney seems to readily grasp & express, Byrd's keyboard music is a singular marker of its time. Nowhere but England did a choral composer of such stature write keyboard music of such breadth, and the result is magical music which has always spoken to me in a personal way. Byrd's penchant for genuinely uplifting music is felt equally clearly here as well, making it an ideal companion for dreary days.

Another Big Three

The next choice has a couple of strangely coincidental details in common with the preceding one. It is a sequel to a landmark recording, and it switched recording labels before appearing for sale. When Ensemble Gilles Binchois' first recording of Machaut chansons appeared ten years ago, it was a transcendent interpretation: The phrasing & articulation were wonderful, the kaleidoscopic sonorities were dazzling, and the passion was evident. On more than one occasion, I have named it my single favorite recording of medieval music, and had even quipped that the only thing it was missing was a second volume. Little did I know, but the sequel had been gathering dust for Harmonic Records. This year it was finally released by Cantus of Spain.

Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre
Machaut: Ballades, motets, virelais et textes dits
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Cantus 9626

Although not a complete set, this second volume of Machaut chansons (including a new interpretation of the Kyrie, as a followup to their earlier recording of the full mass) is likewise no disappointment. It features Dominique Vellard's carefully prepared, luminous performance style, and uses Machaut's poetry to create a programmatic recital. The previous recital had a similar mix of material, but did not form a program, which is in this case the story of the Judgement of the King of Navarre. It is a valuable & illuminating perspective on Machaut, and helps to place his music into context. However, one can certainly enjoy the individual musical tracks on their own merit, without a concern for the program drama. This recital does not have the freshness, the landmark quality, of the first one, but it is certainly of very high quality. Another six years of performing Machaut served to make these interpretations even more carefully chiseled.

The hallmark of the release is as always the controlled passion of Ensemble Gilles Binchois' interpretations, and the resulting depth of nuance available only through years of refinement. As opposed to so many other interpretations which have some appeal, but whose impact melts away over time, with Ensemble Gilles Binchois one has a rendition which virtually "explodes" in the mind upon contact with one's own intellect. It thrives under increased critical pressure, as it were. Of course, Machaut's songs need little in the way of introduction. His is the dominant output of the Ars Nova, a monument of melodic grace wedded to contrapuntal ingenuity, and one of the most singular & impressive legacies of Western art. Although they continue to be performed regularly, Machaut's songs are still under-appreciated relative to their quality & stature. They are quite simply some of the best ever written, by any criterion, and here they receive the quintessentially fluid & sympathetic performance they deserve. There is a possibility for goose bumps any time I hear this recording.

Disclaimer: I did some work on the revised English liner notes for this release, to appear in the next printing. That work followed my genuine admiration for these interpretations, rather than proceeded it. Cantus has plans to reissue the other Ensemble Gilles Binchois recordings made for Harmonic.

With the next selection, I will begin to list some less precedented interpretations. The Diabolus in Musica Ensemble has appeared on this list for three straight years now, the longest active tenure, and their interpretive stance continues to develop & surprise. The following citation marks a real departure from last year's further illumination of the Notre Dame repertory, as the ensemble turns decisively to the troubadours.

La Chanson de Guillaume
Lai, Chansons guerrières et politiques (1188-1250)
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Studio SM 2756

The program is certainly a fine one, featuring a good mix of more- and less-recorded repertory, but the impact here is squarely with the interpretation. It is simply one of the most grounded & inspiring readings of these songs to date, and one which is barely hinted at by this ensemble's relatively tentative previous secular program. Everything is delivered with conviction here, and with an incredible sense of confidence, frequently in near-unison articulation by a male chorus. The earthy sonorities and clearly delivered text continue the trends this group has been cultivating in their Notre Dame recordings, but here they tackle monophony with equal zest. The interpretation has an unusual vibrance based on a slight heterophony and a very compelling technique of accenting off-beat. Such an approach yields an ability to articulate both the vigor and fluidity of these melodies, and gives the entire program an almost hypnotic quality (reminding me, perhaps idiosyncratically, of some Yemenite repertory I also value).

The Ensemble Diabolus in Musica is very much on the rise, and may be the medieval group to watch most closely in the next few years. In fact, they already have a possible contender for next year's list on the market.

After a relative dearth of releases for much of the 1980s, Obrecht's discography is developing relatively quickly now. The seeming lack of appreciation for his music always struck me as unusual, given its evident contrapuntal skill and architectural achievement. This may have been an anomaly, and now Obrecht is getting his due as every bit the artistic equal of Josquin, at least in abstract music. The following release was probably the year's biggest surprise.

Obrecht: Sacred Music
Missa O lumen ecclesiæ / Missa Malheur me bat
Ars Nova Secunda Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 31772

This was a case of a recording appearing with virtually no expectations, and making a name for itself simply on the force of the interpretation. The program is an excellent one, featuring some of Obrecht's finest music, and the rendition itself is one of the most accomplished to date for large-scale Franco-Flemish polyphony. There is an incredible energy here, welded to a keen understanding of the details of Obrecht's technique, and controlled & projected through the development of a large-scale form. To add weight to the achievement, the relatively large ensemble actually yields articulation more clearly audible than many smaller groups. This is direct music-making based on sincerity, not pseudo-dramatic funny stuff, and this group consequently deserves more attention.

Into the countdown...

The past few albums from the accomplished group Pomerium have featured relatively simple or frequently-recorded music, and so despite some fine interpretations, have been of little more than passing interest. However, upon switching to a new recording label last year, they promptly put together a much more impressive program of later Franco-Flemish polyphony.

Musica Vaticana
Music from the Vatican Manuscripts (1503-1534)
Pomerium - Alexander Blachly
Glissando 001

The stand-out item in the program is the Carpentras Lamentations, famous but rarely heard. The remainder is also stimulating, and simply one of the better motet programs to date, incorporating such luminaries as Josquin & Willaert. The latter is still under-appreciated. The interpretation from Pomerium remains excellent, with a clear conception and pleasing mix of sonority. Contrapuntal details are handled lucidly, combining grace with passion, and the entire production has a renewed integrity.

The Ferrara Ensemble is another ensemble which produces consistently good interpretations, and this year they released a fine program of Burgundian song.

The Whyte Rose
Poétique anglo-bourguignone au temps de Charles le Téméraire
Ferrara Ensemble - Crawford Young
Arcana 301

The program itself features more of the English lyrics in this style than are usually heard, and so provides something of a fresh perspective on that basis. The items themselves are well-chosen, including the framing motets, and the entire production has a very accomplished & polished quality to it. After the early development of this style in the hands of Binchois & Dufay, the subsequent development of the fifteenth century chanson, especially in the hands of such masters as Busnois, continues to be relatively under-recorded. It represents the apotheosis of courtly love in song, and with it the medieval aesthetic in music. The music consequently has an epochal significance for me, as well as a wealth of charged material. This disc is a welcome step toward a greater appreciation of these songs.

The frottola as a genre of accompanied Italian sixteenth century song has received a goodly amount of attention of late, after being mostly ignored in surveys from the middle of the century. There is a greater appreciation for the lively melodies of the songs themselves, as well as for their historical role in the development of the "new monody" leading into the Baroque era. For my own part, while the latter is interesting and significant, the former is primary to real appreciation. The past year saw an especially worthwhile program and interpretation appear.

Non e' tempo d'Aspettare
Frottole dal Primo Libro di Franciscus Bossinensis
Roberta Invernizzi / Accademia Strumentale Italiana - Alberto Rasi
Stradivarius 33516

Alberto Rasi's group has been producing some consistently worthwhile recordings in relative obscurity, and this is a particularly compelling example. The sound is warm and richly varied between tracks, and the phrasing is emphatic and convincing. Although the interpretation may be too heavily orchestrated to clearly demonstrate the historical role of the frottola in the development of monody, the rendition is nonetheless a superior choice for straight-forward enjoyment of the songs themselves. Both Cara and Tromboncino are first-rate song-writers, and should be better known, as should Rasi and his group.

I felt as though last year represented something of a "coming of age" for the Clerks' Group, and for the first time felt as though I could recommend their recording without misgivings. What they have always done very successfully is to select repertory of high personal interest to me, and that has not changed. They did, however, make something of a departure to do earlier music in the following citation.

Machaut: Motets / Music from the Ivrea Codex
The Clerks' Group - Edward Wickham
Signum 011

Both aspects of this recording are appealing: The Machaut motets are always stimulating, and still relatively under-performed. Gathering many of them into a single program is a very worthwhile step in gaining appreciation for them. The Ivrea pieces from the same era are even less well-known, but frequently just as intriguing. The interpretations are clearly conceived here. Although they retain some issues with indistinct phrasing, they have a good overall solidity.

The next citation marks a second appearance for the Stradivarius label on this list, a fact which should be noted. Here we have an unselfconscious attempt to produce an entire program from a single Ars Antiqua motet collection, including some of the most famous hockets of the era. These motets are like little "jewels" which must be viewed under a microscope for full appreciation.

Codex Bamberg
Camerata Nova / Ensemble Chominciamento di Gioia - Luigi Taglioni
Stradivarius 33476

Performance style for the Ars Antiqua motets continues to evolve slowly, and the present ensemble provides a valuable viewpoint. Varying combinations are used on different tracks, with many being performed entirely vocally. In addition, the clearly instrumental series which distinguishes the Bamberg Codex is given a compelling reading. Although not based on as much personal experience as Clemencic or Vellard, this ensemble gives a confident presentation with a fresh and non-turgid articulation style. It is an enjoyable program to simply hear, and that is an important step in the appreciation of these motets.

A few extras...

Clemencic continues his series on the budget Ars Nova label, and last year he produced one of the better issues: In this case, he has released a recording of one of the most compelling cantus firmus masses of the mid-fifteenth century Trent Codex, the examples which directly precede the summations of Dufay and Ockeghem.

O rosa bella
English and Continental Music from the Late Gothic Period
Clemencic Consort - René Clemencic
Arte Nova 59210

This is a seasoned interpretation, buoyed by organ intabulations on the same theme and from the same period. The overall conception of the mass is lucid and delivered confidently, although the clarity of articulation is not what I would like from David James of the Hilliard Ensemble. The performance has consequently a bit of a different "color" than Clemencic's other recordings in the series, but the featured mass is a very welcome addition to the discography. Although this series of masses is anonymous, it contains high quality music throughout.

Following on the budget theme, the Ensemble Unicorn continues to record a variety of material for Naxos, and in this case they met with a fortuitous program of relatively unknown repertory fitting their style. This is the second recording of songs by Agricola, together with Josquin an important transitional figure in the history of the chanson, and of course a fine composer.

Agricola: Fortuna desperata
Secular Music of the 15th Century
Ensemble Unicorn - Michael Posch
Naxos 8.553840

Agricola's songs project a restless energy, and this seems to fit the Ensemble Unicorn rather well. Agricola's series of instrumental pieces also suits their sonority, and the one existing survey by the Ferrara Ensemble is somewhat dated by now. However perhaps paradoxically, they give a rather tame recital here, especially as compared with their "dance-mix" of Dufay, and so the recording is valuable more as a complementary perspective than as something radically new as hoped.

Finally, Rebecca Stewart and her ensemble have not rested on previous laurels, and continue to probe for new performance styles and means for getting "inside" the Franco-Flemish repertory. Last year they produced a provocative recording of a mass cycle by Isaac, written to be performed with organ alternation.

I Fiamminghi - III
Isaac, Hofhaimer & Buchner à la Cour de Maxilien Ier
Une "Missa ad Organum" pour le Dimanche de Pâques
Cappella Pratensis - Rebecca Stewart
Ricercar 206 692

Isaac's music has never appealed to me particularly strongly, but the quality work he did in a wide variety of styles is certainly valuable, especially when the styles are otherwise obscure or embryonic. The present mass represents one such example, part of a series written for organ alternation in Germany. The organ lends its energy to the overall cycle, and although the performance must be reconstructed "in the style of" for the present program, it is rather effective. The vocal performance is clearly conceived, benefiting in its lucidity from the easily delineated phrases of Isaac, and showing the combination of command & mysticism which Stewart has been cultivating.

I hope you found something worthwhile in this list. Happy 2000!

To Recordings of the Years page

Todd M. McComb