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Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 2007
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
2007, we have two recordings of Franco-Flemish polyphony, two of Burgundian
polyphonic songs, and one each of medieval lyric & English consort music.
Recording of the Year
Franco-Flemish polyphony has been the largest component of the "Record
of the Year" rundowns over the years, both due to high interest in this
music as well as because the individual pieces are long enough to mostly
fill entire programs. Regarding the music, this era is usually seen
as an absolutely pivotal time for the formation of Western ideas on
counterpoint & harmony, these traits in turn being the most distinctive
aspects of Western music when considered as part of the world at large.
These factors are indeed very significant toward assigning major importance
to these works, but let us not forget that the music itself is very
engaging, especially for its elaborate counterpoint, something that would
be streamlined by subsequent generations. Beyond this, interpretive
choices continue to develop, and in significant ways. For this outpouring
of creativity that forged Western harmonic style, we are still debating
the placement of major & minor intervals, namely music ficta. Our
understanding continues to evolve to the extent that much of what was
attempted regarding accidentals, phrasing, tempo, forces, tuning, etc.
even a couple of decades ago seems outdated. It continues to be an
exciting field, made doubly so by the technique & experience necessary
to produce a truly first-rate performance, even if one already agrees
on all of the technical choices.
The length of the works and consequent domination of CD-length programs
by individual works is not inherently a plus, and should not be regarded
as anything but neutral. The significant factor there is that major
individual works are released separately, rather than together on one
program, providing more opportunities to appear on a list. This year's
Record of the Year takes that aspect to a new level, creating a program
centered on 4 versions of the same piece. It is also, perhaps unbelievably,
given such an emphasis on his work over the years, the first Ockeghem
program to receive this award. Ockeghem's Missa Cuiusvis toni, although
much-cited as singularly impressive, had yet to be performed in convincing
fashion. Indeed, I had wondered about the piece's actual artistic merit,
but no more.
Ockeghem: Missa Cuiusvis toni
Ensemble Musica Nova - Lucien Kandel
Aeon 0753 (2 CDs)
Here we have a very easy choice for Record of the Year, a program &
interpretation which present a compelling look at a singularly interesting
piece for the first time. Moreover, the consideration of ficta and other
performance aspects is such that the interpretation is a very significant
document for the understanding & interpretation of this repertory as a
whole. This ensemble, which had previously worked with earlier music,
also does an outstanding job with rhythm, phrasing, and clarity of line.
In short, this is a model performance, of music suddenly made much more
interesting by virtue of this recording. My only real complaint is that
such outstanding work in this area was accompanied by a lapse in ethical
judgement, namely using some of my own writing without attribution, as
I have discussed elsewhere. The positive side of this action, which
does bother me somewhat, is that I cannot now be accused of conflict of
interest in making this selection. Regardless of my personal feelings
on the subject, this recording is obviously worthy of its placement here.
Continuing the Franco-Flemish theme, Gombert's music has been of
considerable interest at least since it was highlighted by Gustave
Reese. While there have been some interesting & worthwhile efforts
in the past, "the sound and the fury" ensemble has really set a new
standard in performing this music, especially with its energy &
clarity. This past year saw their second volume appear, and while
not quite as exciting overall as the first, it also contains a
variety of appealing music in top-flight performance.
Paradise Regained - Gombert 2
The sound and the fury
This recording is particularly obscure, appearing nowhere in new release
listings that I have been able to consult, and apparently only available
directly from Austrian Radio. The same is true of the first volume,
produced in 2006, and consequently I did not learn of this series until
this year. The first volume would have appeared last year, had I known
of it, and I am certainly grateful for having learned of the existence
of this material from a newsgroup post asking how to obtain it. A
development such as this always makes me wonder what else I may be
missing, this despite literally dozens of people helping apprise me
of interesting new work in medieval & Renaissance music.
Turning to the first of two quite interesting looks at songs from
the early 1400s, I will take a brief moment to discuss the "medieval
or Renaissance?" question. There are many ways to answer this, with
American university educators largely taking the view that the generation
of Binchois & Dufay marks the beginning of the Renaissance in music, and
that view is reflected in many places on this website. Although I have
not shifted to it entirely here, and although there remain interesting
technical reasons (revolving around thirds and the mass cycle) to accept
that view, I have increasingly considered this music to be late medieval,
in agreement with typical French scholarship. Placing the musical
Renaissance with the beginning of music printing is also a nice convenience,
centered around a concrete development that even the layperson can
understand & appreciate. That said, classification of this sort is
ultimately something very secondary, a retrospective appraisal.
Joye - Les plaints de Gilles de Bins dit Binchois
Ensemble Graindelavoix - Bjorn Schmelzer
I was originally disappointed that this release was not as strikingly
original as some previous work by Ensemble Graindelavoix, and their
own program notes, suggested it would be. On the other hand, I have
increasingly enjoyed this program and interpretation, making as it does
an excellent complement to the very polished & prototypical Ensemble
Gilles Binchois recording. Ornamentation & phrasing, in particular,
are reconsidered here, and the orientation around the plaint provides
the program & performance with coherence. Binchois' songs continue to
be highly appealing, forming as they do one of history's great chanson
Although more a part of the "medieval music establishment," one might
say, Diabolus in Musica also brings some freshness & creativity to their
program of this repertory, in this case songs of Dufay. Dufay's songs
have received quite a bit of attention of late, which they certainly
deserve, but have also been plagued by performances which offer very
similar conceptions. This suggests a finality to our understanding and
our approach which I flatly deny exists. Here, Antoine Guerber has made
a real attempt to reconsider these fabulous songs, at least with different
Dufay: Mille Bonjours!
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
The result is quite an enjoyable program to hear, and one which will
surely be appealing to a broad audience. As ensembles such as this grow
and become more famous, and (justly) respected, it does seem that their
style of vocal production seems to adjust more to the "Early Music Voice"
which we know to be a recent creation. I do want to note that here, but
want to end by also noting how much this ensemble's general experience
with Dufay and music of this era shows in the sophistication of their
lines & overall shaping.
Moving to earlier music, of course also reflecting similar love themes,
the Zig-Zag Territoires label has managed to produce a second compelling
program devoted to Adam de la Halle. This time, compared to Micrologus'
very engaging look at similar repertory, the approach could not be more
different. The "Le Jardin de Courtoisie" is all about understated
sophistication in this program, as well as taking a good look at the
way rhythm & accompaniment are constructed in this type of lyric.
Adam de la Halle: D'amoureus cuer voel chanter
Le Jardin de Courtoisie - Anne Delafosse Quentin
Zig-Zag Territoires 070401
The result is a distinctive look at the quieter, more languid side of
the trouvere repertory, although punctuated with some of the "verticality"
that Adam de la Halle was developing in his rondeaus. Unlike those &
his dramatic innovations, this program and (perhaps in contradiction,
considering the innovation reflected in the accompaniment) performance
have at their best something of a "classic" aura to them. The long,
monophonic melodies are treated particularly well, based partly on careful
examination of differences in the sources, helping to illuminate what
are the more & less important aspects of the tune. The heart of the
trouvere repertory, the grand chanson, takes on a real intimacy here.
Finally, here is a program of consort repertory that slips neatly into
discographies. Although Jenkins' five-part consorts are often regarded
as his most distinctive contributions to the repertory, they had been
only sparsely recorded previously.
Jenkins: Five-Part Consorts
Avie Records 2120
Phantasm has taken on that challenge, and done so in an outstanding
& accomplished interpretation which continues to raise English viol
consort playing to new heights. Although Jenkins will never be the
most "significant" of composers, his large output of enjoyable material
provides us with plenty of opportunity for appreciation today.
Todd M. McComb
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