minstrel: 1999 "best CDs list" from rec.music.early

Greg Lindahl lindahl at pbm.com
Wed Jan 5 13:42:58 PST 2000

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From: mccomb at medieval.org (Todd Michel McComb)
Newsgroups: rec.music.early,rec.music.classical.recordings
Subject: Medieval & Renaissance Recordings of the Year - 1999
Date: 5 Jan 2000 10:56:46 -0800

[ Note: This is a text version of a document available on the web at
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listings for the recordings mentioned. ]

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 principle 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 guerrieres 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 ecclesiae / Missa Malheur me bat
	Ars Nova Secunda Chorus - Janos 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
	Poetique anglo-bourguignone au temps de Charles le Temeraire
	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 - Rene 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 complimentary 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 a la Cour de Maxilien Ier
	Une "Missa ad Organum" pour le Dimanche de Paques
	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!

Todd McComb
mccomb at medieval.org

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