This list is centered on the heart of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style of the later 15th century. This is one of the most significant strands of Western musical development, and the list will attempt to survey the three generations from Dufay to Ockeghem to Josquin fairly well, with some later additions from the traditions branching off from this core.
This genre is especially interesting to me, as it is the most elaborate contrapuntal music ever written in the mainstream. My interest stops largely with the stylistic generation of Gombert, with some outlying examples in a handful of styles which add something specific to the polyphonic idiom forged in the late 15th century. I will generally eschew music which is not contrapuntally based in the strict sense. The recordings listed here may not be composed entirely of sacred music, but will be primarily devoted to it.
Recordings will be listed roughly chronologically. I should note specifically here that, in many cases, the number of stars does not adequately relate my own relative enthusiasm for repertory vs. performance. Where a large discrepancy exists between the two, the comments available by following the link on the rating itself should help clarify. Putting together a truly compelling recording of this very fine & complicated music continues to be a challenge. Once more musicians grow up hearing this music, the challenge will lessen.
This list is one I would be happy to make longer. There is a wealth of very fine music from around the year 1500, and it is — for me — the height of Western music. Unfortunately, it has taken quite some time, and the efforts of multiple generations of interpreters, to begin to have any outstanding interpretations of this music. Even as it is, many items here could be improved by a more up-to-date production. Hopefully the situation will continue to improve over time, as more groups learn the intricacies of this music. Many of the questions of note & rhythm have only been answered in recent years, and so interpretations are taking on a more finished quality.
Dufay has benefited tremendously from many fine recordings. His major works have been blessed with more and better performances than any other composer of this stylistic era. A new generation of interpreters continues to improve on the older work, moving his discography into another state of flux. The present list size would seem to give a good overview of Dufay's Mass cycles.
After a long wait, we are finally seeing more first-rate performances of this music. It is very welcome to me, as in many ways this is one of the most stimulating times in Western music, the era from which Dufay & Ockeghem emerged. The techniques are less uniform than they are in the next generation, and so present many unexplored avenues. Only a few years ago, none of the listed recordings existed. (Please also see the secular list for this era, as there are overlapping programs.)
Here I will add the personal note that it was Ockeghem's music more than any other which sold me on this genre some years ago. His ability to compose free counterpoint which is melodically compelling in each line is virtually unparalleled, and a constant inspiration. Ockeghem's discography still seems to be almost in two parts below, with a flurry of recordings around the 500th anniversary of his death, a long gap, and now some new efforts slowly taking over the list.
Moving to the post-Ockeghem generation and the years around the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Franco-Flemish style becomes the central musical idiom of Europe, and a tradition with enough weight to sustain a wealth of viewpoints & innovations. For the most part, I will conclude this list with examples from this generation, that of Josquin and his near contemporaries. This is one of the most appealing times for Western music, but also a time during which style was in a state of flux, and so I've been relatively selective regarding which composers to emphasize. This general section of the listing disappeared at one point, as more dedicated programs appeared in the following sections, but it's now been revived. Perhaps these composers — who exhibit a wide stylistic range — should be given separate sections, but the current paragraph still seems to serve as a useful introduction.
Obrecht is the earliest composer of the broad "Josquin generation" who is of high individual interest to me (at least as combined with a large output). Obrecht is especially skilled at creating large-scale architectural forms and keeping them animated with energetic, even spectacular, counterpoint. Not so many years ago, Obrecht possessed not a single dedicated recording on CD. Today (first with the Hungaroton series), there is a good overview of his style available on record, making this portion of the list a relatively satisfying one where new interpretations tend to refine an existing understanding.
Josquin wrote some fine music, but I cannot say that he is one of my personal favorite composers. While I admire elements of his style, and many of his works, I emphatically disagree with any suggestion that his music dominates the period. This particular sub-listing is also very much in a state of transition: Josquin's most prominent works are generally found only on performances that seem somewhat dated & unfocused in comparison to some of the better, recent interpretations — which might involve lesser or disputed material. Recent recorded emphasis on the mass cycles over the motets is also an issue, as motets makes up some of Josquin's finest music. Still, there is much to enjoy below, pace that the transitional nature of the discography makes for a listing that is longer that it might otherwise be.
La Rue is another individual composer of the period who appeals to me strongly. His style does not make overwhelming use of any particular technical element, continuing the ideas of Ockeghem et al. in an original way. La Rue consequently marks something of an end to the more abstract Franco-Flemish style. His recorded discography had been rather sketchy until recently, finally receiving a landmark interpretation in 2010. That event has made some ripples, including followups, such that some highly appealing material can now be listed here, and from a variety of interpreters. There would appear to be more to find, however, and this section continues to be among the most active.
Gombert is perhaps the most innovative composer in the generation succeeding Josquin. After him, Renaissance polyphony went more toward simplification in a never-ending cycle, and so my interest wanes. I might add other material from the Gombert generation, but striking programs combined with quality interpretations have been slow to appear.
If a recording in this genre is not listed here, either I haven't been able to obtain a copy (perhaps out of print), I don't know about it at all, I felt that it is substantially duplicated by a recording I like better, or I didn't care for it enough to give it one star. Of course this is attentuated for recordings in the final section, as there my criteria for repertory become even more idiosyncractic. However, in the earlier sections I definitely try to be familiar with everything that is recorded. Please feel free to inquire.
One thing that should probably be said here is that I am frequently hyper-critical concerning performances of my favorite pieces. In my more lucid moments, I sometimes think that I merely believe the pieces to be better than they are. The truth is that there is an enormous wealth of detail available, and it's not easy to bring it all out in one performance. I continue to consider this the heart of the Western repertory as a whole.
I will try to keep this page up to date as new releases appear, although updates will tend to be slower here due to the larger number of factors which enter into evaluating a program of this nature.
To recommendation lists.Todd M. McComb Updated: 8 January 2020