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Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2006
It is time once again to select the best recordings of the previous year.
I have been doing this formally for over a dozen years now, and each
year presents a different sort of breakdown of worthy recordings. For
2006, we have three medieval secular programs and two of Franco-Flemish
sacred polyphony. And now to the list....
Recording of the Year
It is unusual for a Record of the Year to feature a program where none
of the individual pieces is particularly well-known or distinctive.
In this case, the Turin Manuscript, featuring songs from French-ruled
Cyprus, is entirely anonymous. There has been some debate regarding
who might have compiled, and in turn composed, this material. There
has also been debate over its musical merit, even more so than the Ars
Subtilior material at large. Nonetheless, this is the single largest
source of secular polyphony from these decades, making it significant
by virtue of uniqueness alone. Beyond that, many of the songs are quite
appealing, especially as the various idioms of c.1400 become better
After a period of intense interest in performing the Ars Subtilior
repertory, often in very creative fashion, there had been something
of a lull in recording this music. This year's release from La Morra
breaks that lull, and does so with the most technically compelling
interpretation to date. There is some excellent music here, performed
well, and although it does not feature any "famous" pieces - as with the
Chantilly MS collections - the program takes on a central place in the
Ars Subtilior discography.
Flour de Beaulte
Late Medieval Songs From Cyprus
It is perhaps strange to be equivocal in a Record of the Year selection,
especially one chosen largely on technical merit, but my general enthusiasm
for this performance should not imply satisfaction with every interpretive
choice. In particular, I do not like how the voice part is doubled
instrumentally at times. Also, the choice of performing so many songs
without lyrics, while creating enjoyable instrumental compositions, does
not do them full justice. Nonetheless, the choice of repertory from the
large manuscript is a good one, and the interpretation, pace the preceding
comments, truly shines. Handling of rhythm, phrasing, articulation, and
tuning are outstanding. La Morra sets a new standard for performing
this repertory, producing a rendition that seems entirely natural, thus
earning this spot for 2006. An interesting fact of note is that this
is easily the earliest repertory they have recorded to date.
First recordings of the major works of the great Franco-Flemish masters
are always in great demand, at least in this corner of the world. Capilla
Flamenca continues to devote much of its attention to Pierre de la Rue,
and 2006 saw perhaps their best combination of repertory & performance
in a program of his sacred music to date.
La Rue: Missa Ave Maria / Vespers
Capilla Flamenca - Dirk Snellings / Psallentes - Hendrik
Musique en Wallonie 0633
This is a very accomplished performance, featuring some of La Rue's best
music. As opposed to some previous programs from this ensemble, the
plainchant sections are not as lengthy, leaving time for more of La Rue's
sacred polyphony to complement the mass. The Magnificat is particularly
welcome. Altogether, this is a fine addition to La Rue's discography
and a clear choice for this list.
When it comes to Franco-Flemish polyphony, it seems there is always room
for another look at the music of Josquin Desprez. Ensemble De Labyrintho
released a second program in 2006, giving the impression that this may
turn into a more extensive series.
Josquin: Musica Symbolica
De Labyrintho - Walter Testolin
Stradivarius "Dulcimer" 33722
Not too many ensembles have been recording entire programs of Josquin's
music in the past few years, perhaps thinking it is over-exposed, but
new looks featuring up-to-date information on musica ficta, rhythm,
tempo, tuning, and sonority can still be quite valuable. In the case
of De Labyrintho, their last two programs are simply the most-accomplished
yet devoted to Josquin. For such a high-profile composer, it is perhaps
amazing that there are so many technical nuances which could benefit
from further refinement in 2006, but the fact remains. Most major
recordings of Josquin's mass cycles are dated, scholarly, at this point
and so new programs such as this are very much needed.
The past few years have continued to see a fairly intense cultivation
of the lai form, largely driven by a small handful of performers.
Machaut's wonderful works in this area have been highlighted repeatedly,
and now in 2006, we have a systematic thematic program from the previous
generation of this repertory.
Tristan et Yseut
Alla Francesca - Brigitte Lesne & Pierre Hamon
Zig-Zag Territoires 051002
Alla Francesca have clearly positioned themselves as leaders in this
area, and the result is a very enjoyable & worthwhile program. This
was an easy release to slide neatly into medieval discographies, and it
is very valuable in clarifying some of the similarities and differences
between the lai and trouvere songs of the era, as well as providing a
fine context for the developments undertaken by Machaut.
It came as something of a shock to me that Gothic Voices had not
released a recording in so many years, once I took a look at their
discography for the purpose of pondering this 2006 release. Combine
a timely renewed look at the Ars Nova in their own distinctive style
with a program featuring all of Solage's songs, and the result is
The Unknown Lover
Songs by Solage and Machaut
Although it is difficult, especially with this opportunity to hear his
complete output, to put Solage near Machaut in terms of compositional
prowess, the repertory remains welcome in one place on disc. The new
recordings of Machaut songs by Gothic Voices are also enjoyable, making
for a fine overall program.
Todd M. McComb
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