Early Music Recording Lists

Renaissance Sacred Polyphony

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 a few later additions from the traditions branching off from this core.

This genre is especially interesting to me, as it's 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 that add something specific to the polyphonic idiom forged in the late 15th century. I'll generally be eschewing music that isn't contrapuntally based in the strict sense. And 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, by repertory. I should note specifically here that, in many cases, the number of stars does not adequately relate my 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 to clarify. Putting together a truly compelling album of this very fine & complicated music continues to be a challenge. And once more musicians grow up hearing this music, the challenge will lessen. (In fact, a full generation has now passed since this page began. Many changes to the listings have occurred in that time, and I try to stay current with new interpretations....)

This list is one I'd also be happy to make longer. There's a wealth of very fine music from around the year 1500 (& earlier), and it's — for me — the height of Western music. Unfortunately, it's taken quite some time, and the efforts of multiple generations of interpreters, to begin to have outstanding interpretations of this music. Even as it is, many items here could be improved by more up-to-date productions. And hopefully the situation will continue to improve over time, as more groups learn the intricacies of the music. Many of the questions of note & rhythm have only been answered in recent decades, and so interpretations are taking on a more finished quality: These days, it gets to be about strength of expression while articulating more musical detail....


Dufay

Dufay has benefited tremendously from many fine recordings. His major works have been blessed with more & 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.... But the present list size would seem to give a good overview of Dufay's mass seminal cycles.

Dufay: The Masses for 1453 (***)
Missa Se la face ay pale / Missa L'homme armé
Cantica Symphonia - Giuseppe Maletto
Glossa 31907
Dufay: Missa Ecce ancilla Domini (**)
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Virgin Veritas 45050
Reine du Ciel (**)
Dufay: Missa Ave Regina Celorum
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Bayard Musique 308 611

Mid-Fifteenth Century

After a long wait, we're finally seeing more first-rate performances of this music. It's (obviously) 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 still present unexplored avenues. Only a few years ago, none of the listed recordings existed. (Please see also the secular list for this era, as there are overlapping programs.) And now some of the items here do start to feel dated....

Regis: Opera omnia (***)
The Clerks - Edward Wickham
Musique en Wallonie 0848/9 (2 CDs)
Caron: Masses & Chansons (****)
The Sound and the Fury
Fra Bernardo 120 730 2 [CDx3]
Busnois: Missa "O crux lignum" / Motets / Chansons (*)
Orlando Consort
Harmonia Mundi USA 907333
Busnois: L'homme armé (*)
Cantica Symphonia - Giuseppe Maletto
Glossa 31906

Ockeghem

For this section, I'll add the personal note that it was Ockeghem's music more than any other that sold me on this genre some years ago. His ability to compose free counterpoint that's melodically compelling in each line is virtually unparalleled, and a continuing inspiration for many. Ockeghem's discography does also seem 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....

Ockeghem: Missa De plus en plus / Missa Fors seulement (**)
Schola Discantus - Kevin Moll
Lyrichord 8029
Ockeghem: Missa Au travail suis / Missa Sine Nomine a5 (*)
The Clerks' Group - Edward Wickham
AS&V Gaudeamus 215
Ockeghem Masses (***)
Missa L'homme armé / Missa Quinti toni
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 170 1743
Requiem - Ockeghem / La Rue (***)
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Bayard Musique 308 475.2
Ockeghem Masses 2 (****)
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 1909373 [CDx2]
Ockeghem: Missa Prolationum (****)
L'ultima parola
Raum Klang 3902

The Golden Age

Moving to the post-Ockeghem generation & 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'll 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 even disappeared at one point, as more dedicated programs appeared in the following sections, but it's now been revived.) Perhaps these composers — who also exhibit a wide stylistic range — should be given separate sections, but the current paragraph still seems to serve as a useful midpoint moving through this larger page....

Agricola: Missa Malheur me bat / Missa In minen sin (**)
Ars Nova Secunda Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32011
Agricola: Missa Le serviteur / Missa Je ne demande (**)
A:N:S Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32267
Matthæus Pipelare 1 (***)
The Sound and the Fury
Fra Bernardo 130 920 2 [CDx2]
Bauldeweyn Masses (***)
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 170 9761 [CDx2]

Obrecht

Obrecht is the earliest composer of the broad "Josquin generation" who is of high individual interest to me (at least as combined with his 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 also possessed not a single dedicated recording on CD. Today (first with the Hungaroton series), there's a good overview of his style available on record, making this portion of the list a relatively satisfying one, i.e. where new interpretations come to refine a solid existing understanding.

Obrecht: Missa Si dedero / Missa Pfauenschwanz (**)
Ars Nova Secunda Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 31946
Obrecht: Missa Fors seulement / Missa De tous biens playne / Missa Cela sans plus (*)
A:N:S Chorus - János Bali
Hungaroton 32319
Plorer, Gemir, Crier... (**)
Hommage à La "Voix d'Or" de Ockeghem
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Aeon 1226
Obrecht Masses (***)
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 1905157 [CDx2]

Josquin

Josquin is, of course, the most heralded composer of the entire period, someone with great influence through the sixteenth century & beyond.... But in some ways, a broader appreciation of his music took longer for me, especially the ways in which he (apparently) edited & developed pieces over years, rendering his major works difficult (or even impossible) to situate within more specific stylistic eras. (I've thus devoted more attention to some of his contemporaries, whose works can often be easier to interpret, and do also tend to seem more spontaneous....) So this & other uncertainties regarding his biography have served to make developing authoritative (to the extent that this is conceivable in the first place...) Josquin interpretations more challenging, in general. And then, I began this project with an emphasis on Josquin's motets — per historical scholarship — but there haven't really been recent "landmark" programs in that specific arena, meaning that I've long been trying to balance & compromise for this list, e.g. working with various partial programs that might feature shorter works. But particularly around the 500th anniversary of Josquin's death (& I wrote a discussion of his oeuvre & discography to conclude that specific event...), I've also come to appreciate the out-of-time "masterpiece" character of his mass cycles, i.e. the apparent editing process, writing for posterity, and being the first to publish.... The motets still feature varied texts & often counterpoint in more parts, so that's not to say that many aren't of very high, even epochal, interest — or weren't highly edited — but there's also no "central" release to recommend. Hence I'm beginning this section with two "complete" mass cycle series, now consolidated into single entries here, followed by a smattering of (recent) mixed programs, especially featuring motets.... The latter do remain under-recorded. (And better combinations of program & interpretation are still certainly conceivable for these entries, so we'll see what happens next....)

Josquin: Masses (***)
The Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 039
Gimell 042
Gimell 044
Gimell 048
Gimell 050
Gimell 051
Gimell 052
Josquin: Missa (**)
Vocal ensemble Cappella - Tetsuro Hanai
Vol. 1: Regulus 1027
Vol. 2: Regulus 1029
Vol. 3: Regulus 1031
Vol. 4: Regulus 1033
Vol. 5: Regulus 1037
Vol. 6: Regulus 1039
Vol. 7: Regulus 1045
Vol. 8: Regulus 1047
The Spirit like a Dove (**)
Apollo5 / Ingenium Ensemble
VCM 122
Josquin: Stabat mater (*)
Marian motets and instrumental songs
Cantica Symphonia - Giuseppe Maletto
Glossa 31909
Josquin: Motets & Mass Movements (*)
Brabant Ensemble - Stephen Rice
Hyperion 68321
Giosquino (**)
Josquin Desprez in Italia
Odhecaton, et al. - Paolo Da Col
Arcana 489

La Rue

La Rue is another individual composer of the period who appeals to me strongly. His style doesn't make overwhelming use of any particular technical element, continuing the ideas of Ockeghem et al. in an original way. (La Rue's music also seems more flowing & spontaneous, also per Ockeghem, pace the Josquin comments above....) La Rue, who also never worked in Italy, consequently marks something of an end to the full-fledged Franco-Flemish style (yielding soon to the Counter-Reformation...). But his recorded discography had been rather sketchy until recently, finally receiving a landmark interpretation only in 2010. That event left some ripples, including followups, and more highly appealing material can now be listed below, from a variety of interpreters. There would appear to be more to discover, however, and this section has recently been among the most active....

La Rue: Missa de Feria / Missa Sancta Dei Genitrix (*)
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 67010
La Rue: Incessament (*)
Amarcord
Raum Klang "Edition Apollon" 10105
La Rue: Missa Ave Maria / Vespers (*)
Capilla Flamenca - Dirk Snellings
Musique en Wallonie 0633
La Rue: Paradise regained (***)
Missa "Ave sanctissima Maria" / Missa "O salutaris Hostia"
The Sound and the Fury
ORF 3094
La Rue: Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor / Missa Inviolata (**)
Brabant Ensemble - Stephen Rice
Hyperion 68150
La Rue Masses (****)
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 1800 751 [CDx2]
La Rue: Masses (***)
The Sound and the Fury
Fra Bernardo 1810 455 [CDx2]

Beyond...

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.

Gombert: Motets (***)
Beauty Farm
I: Fra Bernardo 150 421 [CDx2]
II: Fra Bernardo 1612 457 [CDx2]
III: Fra Bernardo 223 1711 [CDx2]

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's 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 attenuated for recordings in the final section, as there my criteria for repertory become even more idiosyncratic. 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'm frequently hyper-critical concerning performances of my favorite pieces. In my more lucid moments, I sometimes wonder if I merely believe the pieces to be better than they are.... The truth is that there's an enormous wealth of detail available, and it's not easy to bring it all out in one performance. And I continue to consider this to be the heart of the Western repertory as a whole.

I'll 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 that enter into evaluating a program of this nature.

To recommendation lists.

Todd M. McComb
Updated: 6 June 2022