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April 1, 2010 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Help me build the essential early music library.

I'm interested in building my collection of "early music" -- which I am basically defining as music written pre-1700 CE. Baroque, Medieval, Renaissance, or whatever terms may apply. While names of composers or pieces are appreciated, I'm more interested in actual album/performer recommendations; buying in the "classical" section can be difficult because there are so many budget labels with recordings by the Indiana Basin Silt Community College Chamber Orchestra recorded on someone's MacBook, so I am looking for specifics.

Here are my interests, generally speaking, regarding national origin:
1)England and Northern Europe is of chief interest
2)Western Europe in general
3)Eastern Europe and the Americas
4)Early "Folk" or "World" music

In terms of performance style, I'm more interested in recordings made using period instruments rather than renditions on modern instruments.

Equally interested in courtly, religious, and popular music, and equally interested in vocal, instrumental, and mixed.

So. What should I buy?
posted by Saxon Kane to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to check out Carlo Gesualdo. His music is very chromatic, and has a lot in common with some modern music. Stravinsky, for instance, made a pilgrimage to his castle.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:51 PM on April 1, 2010

Not really an expert on the subject, but a good starting point would be the work of Jordi Savall.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:51 PM on April 1, 2010

Oh, as to specific recordings, for Gesualdo you could start with the Werner Herzog documentary, and follow those performers that are in residence at his castle.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:58 PM on April 1, 2010

Hildegard of Bingen is the Madonna of early music.
posted by rongorongo at 1:59 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gesualdo's Tenebrae on ECM (an excellent label) is the most amazing early music I've ever heard. It's hard to believe you're listening to music written pre-1900, let alone pre-1700.

Anything conducted by John Eliot Gardiner would be a good bet. (You can assume anything with him uses period instruments.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:10 PM on April 1, 2010

Look for Allegri's Miserere Mei, Thomas Tallis, Palestrina, Henry Purcell and Josquin.

This CD has choral music by most of them.
posted by turbodog at 2:17 PM on April 1, 2010

The playlists for Radio 3's early music programmes or Indiana Public Media's Harmonia may help you out, as well as providing free podcasts and/or rebroadcasts.

You presumably want some Dowland: the Naxos set of lute music is both inexpensive and well done, and the Dowland Consort's Lachrimæ gives you settings with viol and violin.

I'm a fan of medieval/early-modern Spanish music, especially Andalusian works, and the best source for that is Eduardo Paniagua's recordings with Musica Antigua and Ibn Baya. The Unicorn Ensemble also do good work for Naxos, again at a low price.

On preview: you generally can't go far wrong with Hesperion and ECM.
posted by holgate at 2:21 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

For performers, you could start by checking out the Madison Early Music Festival (I'm biased because I know the organizers, but it's a great one). Any of their featured performers are wonderful.

The Norton Anthology of Western Music is the standard text for college curricula, and the recordings that go along with it are usually pretty good. I can't seem to find the volume 1 (Ancient to Baroque) cd on Amazon, but that's what it is.

Groups to look for: Anonymous 4, Newberry Consort, Piffaro, the Tallis Scholars, and lots of stuff with countertenors like Alfred Deller or David Daniels (because they usually took alto roles in early operas, etc.). David Willcocks is a British conductor who does a lot of stuff with older carols and madrigals, specifically those published in the Oxford books. You'll often see him mentioned in the same breath as the King's College Choir.

Composers to look for (mostly vocal): Monteverdi, Purcell, Palestrina, Schutz, Josquin des Prez, Sweelinck, Gabrieli, Johannes Ockeghem, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Melchior Vulpius, William Byrd, Thomas Weelkes, John Wilbye, Antonio Lotti, Clement Janequin, Hildegarde von Bingen, Thomas Morley...
posted by Madamina at 2:28 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Recommendations from He also has a bunch of essays somewhere in there that may also help you.
posted by rhizome at 2:33 PM on April 1, 2010

I guess the Norton Anthology of Western Music would be too on-the-nose?
posted by MesoFilter at 2:34 PM on April 1, 2010

A Sei Voci's recordings of Josquin are all wonderful.
posted by Gilbert Osmond at 2:50 PM on April 1, 2010

Response by poster: MesoFilter: Well, not exactly, but the problem with a lot of anthologies is that you'll get 1 or 2 pieces by a particular composer, rather than a solid chunk of their work.

So far, lots of great recommendations. Keep 'em coming! And again, anyone who's got specific albums that they love, name 'em.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:52 PM on April 1, 2010

Ditto all of the above. A few specific examples to whet your appetite:

Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort & Taverner Choir on EMI date stamped 1989:
Tallis / Latin Church Music I and II featuring works by Thomas Tallis (~1505-1585).

The Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips on Gimell (their own label, I think) date stamped ~1985:
Thomas Tallis / Spem in Alium. This has some overlap of works with the above two CDs by the Taverner Consort. All are marvelous.

Philip Pickett and the New London Consort on De L'Oiseau - Lyre / Decca date stamped 1986:
Praetorius Dances from Terpsichore dance music by Michael Praetoris (~1571-1621).

Clemencic Consort on harmonia mundi date stamped 1971 / 1986:
Danses de la Renaissance.

For a new take on something old, you might enjoy the Kronos Quartet's Early Music on Nonesuch date stamped 1997. On this group's Black Angels album circa 1990 you will find a hauntingly beautiful instrumental version of Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium," a piece written strictly for 40 voices (and which you will find on the aforementioned albums by the Taverner Consort and the Tallis Scholars).

Also, you might visit (online radio) and experiment with setting up different stations around, say, Thomas Tallis or whomever. The site displays the album / CD to which the current selection belongs, and might help you find composers, pieces and specific recordings that suit your taste.
posted by SuzB at 3:24 PM on April 1, 2010

Anything by Stile Antico or Les Witches (choral and instrumental, respectively).
posted by orrnyereg at 3:56 PM on April 1, 2010

Fretwork's album called Night's Black Bird is excellent. Alternating tracks by John Dowland and William Byrd, all instrumental. It's useful as background music but you can become immersed in it if you want to. (Fretwork has a lot of other early music recordings, which I assume are also worth getting.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:13 PM on April 1, 2010

My copy of Paul Hillier and Andrew Lawrence-King's Distant Love is one of my most treasured possessions.

L'Oiseau Lyre is a label that has rarely done me wrong.

Also, a bit after your time frame, but since you mentioned the Americas: Anthonello's newish recording of the Trujillo Codex is lots of fun.
posted by No-sword at 4:39 PM on April 1, 2010

Anything by Sequentia.
posted by matildaben at 5:10 PM on April 1, 2010

John Dowland. I'd give some particular recommendations, but I'm not home right now.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:18 PM on April 1, 2010

I'm on my way to bed and don't have time to answer this question properly (it would take awhile), so sorry about that!

But two quick things:

1. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi has lots of early music recordings that are reliably good.

2. Sigh. The Tallis Scholars. They are ubiquitous. You may like them. Be aware that when they perform Renaissance music, they are creating a consistent fabric of sound that ends up sounding either a) boring or b) meditative, depending on how you look at it. (I tend toward a.)

A lot of folks seem to think that early music, especially polyphonic music of the High Renaissance, should be slow with no dynamics and no shape. Obviously, I disagree. I guess my point is - listen to different performances of the same piece and you will figure out what you like.

p.s. nthing Gesualdo!
posted by nosila at 9:12 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

La Reverdie is another favorite of mine, though the english version of their site seems to be broken.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:38 PM on April 1, 2010

The first piece I ever heard that got me hooked on pre-baroque music was Voices of Ascension's recording of "Sicut cervus" on this album of Palestrina standards, The Greatest Choral Music of Palestrina: Prince of Music.

Another is El Cant de la Sibil·la or "The Song of the Sibyl," which is "a liturgical drama and a Gregorian chant, the lyrics of which compose a prophecy describing the Apocalypse" (Wikipedia). I heard the Mallorcan portion of this recording by La Capella Reial de Catalunya on the way home from work one evening and it completely shocked me out of my shoes. The voice of the female vocalist is haunting. You can hear some of it here, or get the third download from this page, but really, you should hear this from the CD if you can get it.
posted by hat at 9:58 PM on April 1, 2010

Emma Kirkby has sung on some of the best recordings I've heard from this repertoire. There's also a younger generation who are playing on period instruments but are not afraid of improvisation, experimentation and making the music 'swing' more than you get with the more traditional 'classically trained' approach: L'Arpeggiata for example, or Jordi Savall's children Arianna and Ferran.
posted by amestoy at 1:30 AM on April 2, 2010

The wonderful Chris Whent has a program "Here of a Sunday Morning" for more than 30 years on WBAI-FM NYC every Sunday Morning.
He as play's music from before 1800 and the Here of a Sunday Morning Website has links to listen to his latest show.
posted by blast at 8:40 AM on April 2, 2010's Basic Repertoire sections are great for this sort of thing: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque. The linked pages list only the works but if you click through to the individual composer pages they also recommend individual recordings.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:16 AM on April 2, 2010

Anything by The Dufay Collective. Their A L'Estampida absolutely rocks.

There was an essential recording called "Dance Music of the High Renaissance" by The Collegium Terpsicore on DG Archiv; it was also was reissued on Boston Skyline CDs. Much of it has been collected here.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 5:34 PM on April 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations everyone. Kick ass!

Q for nosila: any examples of what you would consider non-boring performers/performances?
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:13 PM on April 2, 2010

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