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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Essential Renaissance
EMI CLASSICS 6 88592 2 [78:39+79:04]

Experience Classicsonline

CD 1
Gregorio ALLEGRI (c.1582-1652) Miserere mei, Deus (vv1-4 & 17-20) (from the film Face/Off) [5:45]
Timothy Beasley-Murray (treble); Gerald Finley (cantor); Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury (rec. 1984)
John DUNSTABLE (c.1390-1453) Veni Sancte Spiritus [6:23]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1984)
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) O nata lux [1:53]
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir Philip Ledger (rec. 1982)
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1559/60) Verbum caro factum est [6:41]
Clerkes of Oxenford/David Wulstan (rec. 1978)
Giovanni GABRIELI (c.1553/6-1612) Buccinate in neomenia [4:17]
Ambrosian Singers; Barry Rose organ; String & Brass Ensemble/Denis Stevens (rec. 1970)
Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) O magnum mysterium [4:08]
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks (rec.1965)
William BYRD (1543-1623) Ave verum corpus [4:38]
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks (rec.1965)
Giovanni da PALESTRINA (c.1525/6-1594) Tu es Petrus [3.57]
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks (rec. 1965)
Guillaume DUFAY (c.1400-1474) Kyrie (Missa L’homme armé) [4:07]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1987)
Orlandus (de) LASSUS (1532-1594) Gloria (Missa super Bell’Amfitrit’ altera) [4:16]
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/George Guest (rec. 1991)
Christopher TYE (c.15050-1572) Credo (Missa Euge bone) [5:29]
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir Philip Ledger (rec. 1982)
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450-1517) Sanctus (Missa Paschale) [4:25]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1983)
William BYRD Agnus Dei (4-part Mass) [3:51]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1984)
JOSQUIN Des Prés (c.1440/50-1521) Absalon, fili mi [4 :26]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1984)
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) Hosanna to the son of David [3:11]
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks (rec. 1965)
Thomas TALLIS Spem in alium (from the film Touching the Void) [10:23]
Taverner Choir/Andrew Parrott with Wim Becu (bass sackbut); Paul Nicholson & Alan Wilson (organs) (rec. 1989)
CD 2
Guillaume DUFAY Ce moys de may [2:35]
Early Music Consort of London/David Munrow (rec. 1973)
Johannes OCKEGHEM (c.1410-1497) Missa Prolationum: Agnus Dei I [2:02]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1989)
JOSQUIN Deploration sur la mort de Ockeghem [5:49]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1983)
Scaramella va alla guerra [2:09]
El grillo [1:44]
Early Music Consort of London/David Munrow (rec. 1976)
Heinrich ISAAC Es walt ein meydlein grasen gan [1:09]
Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (rec. 1983)
Francisco de PEÑALOSA (1470-1528) Inter vestibulum [2:24]
Ensemble Gilles Binchois (rec. 1998)
King HENRY VIII (1491-1547) En vray amoure [1:04]
Pastime with good company [1:52]
Ricercare Ensemble fur Alte Musik, Zurich/Jordi Savall (rec. 1974)
Francesco da MILANO (1497-1543) Spagna [1:37]
Hopkinson Smith, Paul O’Dette (lutes) (rec. 1979)
Giovanni Domenico da NOLA (c.1510-1592) Chi la gagliarda [3:19]
Adrian WILLAERT (1497-1543) O dolce vita mia [4:29]
Lodovico AGOSTINI (1534-1590) Non t’aricordi [2:00]
WILLAERT Vecchie letrose [2:09]
The King’s Singers; Tragicomedia (rec. 1991)
Claude JANEQUIN (c.1485-1558) Chantons, sonnons, trompettes [2:07]
La Guerre (La Bataille de Marignan) [7:03]
Le Caquet des femmes [8:04]
Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental Roger Blanchard (rec. 1964)
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643) Toccata (Orfeo) [1:37]
Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haim (rec. 2004)
Altri canti d’amor, tenero arciero [10:12]
The Consort of Musicke/Anthony Rooley (rec. 1991)
Beatus vir (Vespers of 1610) [8:53]
Taverner Consort and Players/Andrew Parrott (rec. 1984)
MONTEVERDI (attrib.) Pur ti mira (L’incoronazione di Poppea) [5:40]
Arleen Auger (soprano); Della Jones (mezzo); City of London Baroque Orchestra/Richard Hickox (rec. 1990)
No notes, texts or translations.
EMI CLASSICS 6 88592 2 [78:39+79:04]
What you see claimed on the cover is what you get – ‘over 2 hours of inspiring Renaissance masterpieces’. Someone recently asked me to recommend an introduction to the music of this period; I wish that I had had this 2-CD set to hand then or known that it was forthcoming. Even more to the point, I wish that something like this had been available when I was beginning to take an interest in classical music of all periods, over 50 years ago. It’s just the ticket for anyone wishing to dip a toe into the repertoire – and I am sure that those who do so will soon wish fully to immerse themselves.
Indeed, that is one of my few reservations: you could become seriously addicted to this music and wish to explore further by purchasing whole CDs devoted to a particular composer, in which case you may well find yourself owning the complete discs from which these extracts are taken. To consider just one example, Beatus vir on CD 2, track 20, from Andrew Parrott’s complete recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610: the complete set from which this excerpt comes is my bargain recommendation, still an excellent choice well into its third decade.
It’s an urgent recommendation, too. If you buy just one recording by any of the composers included on Essential Renaissance, make it the Monteverdi Vespers. Andrew Parrott’s recording comes on a super-budget Virgin twofer (5616622) without texts, or with texts at mid price on EMI Great Recordings 2126852 – see review. Even better, especially if you must have SACD, is the stupendous King’s Consort recording on Hyperion CDA67531/2 (CD) or SACDA67531/2 (SACD), one of my Hyperion Top 30 – see review.
My other, more serious reservation concerns the lack of notes, texts and translations. I have just complained of the lack of texts in a Brilliant Classics reissue of the music of Josquin des Prés (93939), a CD which I might otherwise have considered for Bargain of the Month, but at least Brilliant provide two pages of notes. From EMI you get nothing – they cannot even bother to give the full names of some of the composers, or any of their dates. What is the beginner to make of all this music when it is just thrown at him or her? Clearly, this is designed to appeal to those who have heard some of the pieces, for example on film, and wish to know more – two of the items on CD1 are specifically stated to be ‘from’ films, though EMI then have to modify that statement with a disclaimer that ‘these are not original film soundtrack versions’. Such listeners need more assistance; they don’t even get a translation of the Latin, French, Middle High German, Italian and Spanish titles.
There is no clear reason for the way in which the music is programmed, except that the works on CD 1 are religious, while those on CD 2 are almost entirely secular and generally more lively. The psalm Beatus vir from Monteverdi’s Vespers appears naturally enough with the two other Monteverdi items which close CD2, but I cannot see why the extract from Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum (CD2, tr.2) and Peñalosa’s penitential Inter vestibulum, a text associated with Ash Wednesday (CD2, tr.7) appear among the secular items. Perhaps the notes, had they existed, would have explained matters.
The music ranges from the early Renaissance, when what we now perceive as a movement in the arts was just beginning to get under way – Dunstable and Dufay, both born around 1400 – to Monteverdi in the early 17th century, usually regarded as a baroque rather than a renaissance figure. Don’t get bogged down with labels which were originally invented to describe schools of painting and are not always readily applied to music and literature – it’s all wonderful music.
There are representative composers from Northern and Southern Europe. You may be surprised to see so many English composers, but English music in the period of Dunstable and his contemporaries was briefly as fashionable throughout Europe as the form of embroidery known as Opus Anglicanum, and polyphony flourished in the next century under the likes of Tallis and Byrd. We are beginning to recognise the work of Scottish composers from this period, too, but none of their music features here.
There are no serious omissions, but I should have liked to see some Taverner alongside Sheppard and, though the Déploration, or Lamentation for the death of Ockeghem, is a fine choice to represent Josquin, the two secular items which follow, Scaramella (Scaramella goes to war) and El grillo (the cricket) are hardly representative of his output. They were presumably chosen to represent the lively, if slightly dated by scholarly standards, performances of David Munrow and his ground-breaking Early Music Consort.
Palestrina’s short Tu es Petrus (CD1, tr.8) and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium (CD1, tr.6) also seem mere drops in the ocean, just 8 minutes out of the total of almost 160 to represent such central figures. Both could profitably be the first composers after Monteverdi for purchasers of these CDs to follow up and, for all the qualities of the performances here (King’s College, Cambridge, directed by David Willcocks), there are more idiomatic versions on the market. EMI have a super-budget Gemini 2-CD set of Palestrina Masses and Motets, again from King’s, under Phillip Ledger and David Willcocks, which I recommended as wonderful value (2176552 – see review) but you’ll find that I made a number of alternative recommendations there.
Since I wrote that review, Westminster Cathedral Choir have recorded a different Palestrina motet Tu es Petrus, together with the Mass which is based on it and the Missa Te Deum laudamus, just released (March, 2010) by Hyperion (CDA67785). As I write, I have had chance for just a preliminary listen to this new recording and my first reactions are extremely favourable. Look for a more detailed recommendation in my April, 2010 Download Roundup. So, while the Gemini set would be a good, inexpensive, way to explore Palestrina further, the new Hyperion and their many other Palestrina recordings with the Westminster choir would be more idiomatic. Their recording of the Masses O Rex gloriæ and Viri Galilei is due to reappear on the budget Helios label in May 2010 (CDH55335).
Let me also recommend Westminster Cathedral Choir on Hyperion as a way of furthering your knowledge of the wonderful music of Victoria, a Spanish composer who spent much of his working life in Italy and, therefore, blends the two Mediterranean traditions. When I hear his music on a recording as fine as Hyperion’s recent version of his Missa Gaudeamus (CDA67748; Recording of the Month – see review and review), I begin to wonder whether my loyalty to Palestrina is unshakeable. Organ Morgan, in Under Milk Wood, you may recall, thought Palestrina second only to Johann Sebastian Bach. The King’s/Willcocks Victoria is good, but less idiomatic than the Westminster performances.
Some of the other items which King’s recorded in the 1960s with David Willcocks are also growing slightly long in the tooth. Their account of Orlando Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David serves as useful introduction to a somewhat neglected composer whom many will wish to explore further: try Winchester Cathedral Choir on Hyperion Helios CDH55228, at budget price, which opens with a rather tauter version of the same Hosanna.
Byrd’s Ave verum corpus (CD1, tr.7) is a beautiful work and it receives a fine performance but there are better ways to follow up Byrd’s music; I particularly recommend the 2-for-1 Gimell collection which also contains the three Masses, including the four-part Mass from which the Agnus Dei (CD1, tr.13) is taken, The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd (CDGIM208 – see review). This should be followed up by a similar collection on which they sing the music of the composer whose name they have taken, The Tallis Scholars sing Thomas Tallis (CDGIM203) – arguably slightly preferable to the Virgin twofer from which Parrott’s account of Spem in alium is taken (5622302), and only slightly more expensive. You will already have the Parrott version of this stupendous 40-part motet (CD1, tr.16), so the Gimell offers an interesting, very slightly faster-paced alternative.
King’s later recordings under Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury are still competitive. The opening item on CD1, Allegri’s Miserere, almost chooses itself and the florid version with all the top notes, embellished by later generations long after Allegri penned it, was almost mandatory. This is not the famous Goodman/Willcocks King’s version from two decades earlier – that is still available on The World of King’s I, Decca 430 0922 – but it is very impressively sung. Rather more to my liking, since I think that the Allegri receives too much exposure, are the King’s/Ledger Tye (CD1, tr.11) and George Guest’s Lassus from St John’s next door (CD1, tr.10). The complete St John’s/Guest Missa Bell’Amfitrit’altera, with another version of Allegri’s ubiquitous Miserere and Palestrina’s Mass Veni sponsa Christi is available very inexpensively on Classics for Pleasure 5755602, but Philip Ledger’s recording of Tye seems no longer to be available; try David Hill and the Winchester Cathedral Choir on budget Hyperion Helios instead (CDH55079) or Jeremy Summerly and the Oxford Camerata on Naxos (8.50397, coupled with Mundy).
The items in which David Munrow’s Early Music Consort perform on CD 2 (trs.1 and 4-5) are real appetite-whetters. These recordings tend to flit in and out of the catalogue under various titles: Ce moys de may (This month of May) also features currently on a mid-price album with the enticing and misleading title The Da Vinci Code (Virgin 3615242). I’d like to recommend this CD, but it contains too many pieces which overlap (in identical performances) with CD2 of the new Essential Renaissance album; it’s one of the hazards of the business that material constantly gets recycled in this way. I can recommend Munrow’s recording of Prætorius, the Dances from Terpsichore and Motets on mid price Virgin 5612892, or more appropriately coupled with other renaissance dance music on a very inexpensive twofer, Virgin 3500032. Virgin/EMI must surely be intending to re-release some of their other recordings, notably The Art of Courtly Love and The Art of the Netherlands, both currently out of the catalogue, though the latter remains available as a download in mp3 or lossless sound, from passionato. Snap them up if you find them offered as remainders or as decent second-hand copies.
The Hilliard Ensemble and Paul Hillier offer thoroughly reliable and enjoyable performances on eight tracks (CD1, trs.2, 9, 12-14; CD2, trs. 2, 3 and 6). Some of their EMI/Virgin albums are well worth exploring, such as the inexpensive twofer of Josquin Motets and Chansons (Virgin 5623462). If you enjoy their Dunstable invocation to the Holy Spirit, Veni Sancte Spiritus, as I believe you will (CD1, tr.2) you may well wish to explore the mid-price CD of his Motets from which it came (Virgin 5613422). Their account of Josquin’s Déploration (CD2, tr.3) is more measured than that of the Orlando Consort on Brilliant 93939; both are very good, and, though I marginally prefer the Hilliard approach, the Brilliant CD makes a good budget-price recommendation, too. Alas, however, again there are no texts.
David Wulstan’s Clerkes of Oxenford contribute a fine performance of Sheppard’s Christmas motet Verbum caro factum est. Their Classics for Pleasure CD of music by Sheppard and Tallis, from which this was taken, was one of the stalwarts of the budget-price catalogue (5759882); its deletion now seems untimely, just when those listening to Essential Renaissance might have turned to it to explore further. Look out for remainders or good second-hand copies or download from passionato. You will end up with another Spem in alium – arguably as good as the Parrott version – and another O nata lux, the latter slightly faster paced than and preferable to the Willcocks performance on Essential Renaissance. Many of today’s top early music ensembles owe much to Wulstan’s pioneering work.
The Denis Stevens/David Willcocks Classics for Pleasure CD from which the Gabrieli is taken (CD1, tr.5) remains available (The Glory of Venice, 5860492). It’s not hard to like the music of the Gabrielis, uncle Andrea and nephew Giovanni, and this budget CD offers good value. Follow it up with another budget CD of Andrea’s music on Hyperion Helios (CDH55265 – see review). A budget Virgin twofer of both Gabrielis and their contemporaries (A Musical Banquet, Hespèrion XX/Savall, 5620282) has recently been deleted – copies may still be around; it’s available to download from passionato and parts of it remain available in an inexpensive 5-CD set (4820252).
The two short tracks of music by Henry VIII (CD2, tr.8-9) from the Ricercare Ensemble, conducted by Jordi Savall, are suitably jolly, as is the Smith/O’Dette lute partnership in the short piece by Milano which follows; these two excellent lutenists really deserve greater exposure than they receive here. The Ricercare Ensemble recordings seem to have disappeared from the catalogue, but you will find plenty of entertaining and scholarly performances of music from this period directed by Jordi Savall on his own Alia Vox label. There are also many recordings on other labels by Hopkinson Smith, from which I mention just one, offering more lute music by da Milano (Naïve E8921). Of the many recordings which Paul O’Dette has made for various labels, I recommend one which also includes music by da Milano on the budget-price Harmonia Mundi Express label (HCX395 7043). He has also made some fine duet recordings with Jacob Lindberg; I’m listening to them playing English Lute Duets as I write this paragraph, on BIS-CD 267, courtesy of the wonderful Naxos Music Library.
The King’s Singers, who contribute three items on CD2, probably need no introduction. If you wish to explore their distinctive and lively performances of this repertoire – and much that is more recent, too – you’ll find them on two inexpensive EMI compilations, the 40th Anniversary Edition (5145872, 2 CDs) or the 5-CD King’s Singers Collection (2070632).
The Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental Roger Blanchard contributes just the three Janequin pieces, the central one of which, La Bataille, a graphic sound picture of the Battle of Marignan, was the smash hit of its day – it was even employed as the cantus firmus or underlying tune of a mass by Francisco Guerrero. (Recorded by The Sixteen on COR16067 and by Westminster Cathedral Choir on budget-price Hyperion Helios CDH55340 – see review and my Hyperion Top 30). I had not heard this group before but they offer a virtuoso performance of La Bataille that makes me wish to hear more of them. Unfortunately, however, none of their recordings seem to have survived in the UK catalogue.
Another French group, the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, contributes a single track, Peñalosa’s Inter vestibulum (CD2, tr.7):
Inter vestibulum et altare plorabant sacerdotes, ministri Domini, dicentes: Parce Domine, parce populo tuo et ne des hæreditatem tuam in opprobrium ut non dominentur eis nationes.
Da pacem Domine in diebus nostris. Amen.
Between the entrance and the altar the priests, the servants of the Lord, wept and said: Spare, O Lord, spare your people and give not your inheritance to reproach, that the nations may not have dominion over them. Give peace in our time, O Lord. Amen. [My translation].
This also features on the Virgin Da Vinci Code CD (see above) but several other recommendable recordings by them also survive in the catalogue, some of them on other budget Virgin twofers. Once again, you will find a budget-price Hyperion Helios CD a recommendable follow-up: Peñalosa Complete Motets, CDH55357, Pro Cantione Antiqua/Bruno Turner – see review. These Helios recordings, for all that they are inexpensive, put the present CDs to shame, offering full notes, texts and translations.
The excerpt from Monteverdi’s Orfeo is taken from Emmanuelle Haïm’s recent recording, one of the best versions around, though I remain loyal to John Eliot Gardiner (DGG Archiv, 419 250-2 – see my February, 2010 Download Roundup) and, at budget price, the Nigel Rogers/Charles Medlam (Virgin 4820702). To offer the Toccata alone hardly gives a representative idea of the opera as a whole; though it is one of the earliest examples of opera, it remains as fresh today in one of these performances as when it was composed.
Altri canti d’amor (Let others sing of love) is one of the most striking of Monteverdi’s madrigals and the Consort of Musicke give it a fitting performance (CD2, tr.19), but, good as their version of most of the Eighth Book of Madrigals is, on an inexpensive Virgin twofer (561702), I recommend going for broke with the complete set from Rinaldo Alessandrini on a superb mid-price 3-CD set, Naïve OP30435 (Recording of the Month – see review).
The excerpt from Poppea which closes CD 2 comes from a complete recording, based on a 1988 production, no longer available on CD but as a download from passionato or amazon. The complete set had a rather mixed reception and I found myself not quite able to warm to the extract, despite the eminence of the singers and conductor. For a complete set of this opera (my least favourite of Monteverdi’s three, I must admit), I am content to stay with Harnoncourt, whose Teldec recording has recently been reissued at budget price on Warner 2564692611 (3 CDs for around £11 – don’t order the 4-CD set, which remains available at around £36, by mistake).
I mentioned the lack of anything by Taverner, but you will find plenty of his music on a very inexpensive Hyperion 10-disc set, The Golden Age of English Polyphony (The Sixteen, CDS44401/10, Bargain of the Month – see review and review) or the same performances on individual CDs in their budget Helios series.
As I close this review, I must mention two recent arrivals for review which have made a very good initial impression:
Coeperunt Loqui – music by Lassus (his short Mass known as Missa venatorum), Tallis, Sheppard, Morales, Philips and Prætorius (Herald HAVPCD351, Cheltenham College Chamber Choir) and Naked Byrd – music by Byrd, Tallis, Sheppard and Allegri (the inevitable Miserere, of course) and more recent composers, including Bruckner and John Tavener (Armonico Consort, Signum SIGCD180). The Signum CD opens with an account of the Byrd Ave verum corpus just as reverential as the Willcocks version on Essential Renaissance but much more intimate in tone, followed by O Magnum Mysterium by contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen.
In sum, there is a wide variety of music on Essential Renaissance, sacred and secular, from the earliest musical beginnings of the Renaissance to a time when, arguably, music had moved on to a new baroque style. None of the performances will let you down and some of them are among the best available; they should encourage the listener to explore the music of the period further, often in the form of the complete recordings from which these extracts are taken. The recording is more than adequate throughout, though made over a lengthy period of time. The presentation, however, is defective, and this lack of notes and texts prevents my awarding the set the Bargain of the Month accolade which should otherwise have been its due.
The presence of so many, often complex catalogue numbers in this review prompts me to remind you always to check carefully before ordering and, if possible, to give the name of the composer and title of the music as well as the number.
Brian Wilson


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