Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The World of Early Music

The amazing Naxos label, having produced so many excellent budget-priced classical recordings, has a line of "Early Music" albums, with an explanatory note for its 2-CD The World of Early Music set stating that "we limit the term Early Music to cover a period ranging from plainchant to the end of the seventeenth century."

This album consists of a first CD dealing with "Medieval and Renaissance Music" and the second with "The Baroque," or, rather, that generalized delineator before Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and the like.  In any case, The World of Early Music is filled with remarkably variable types of music, mostly from rather obscure composers and sources, with representation from better-known figures like Hildegard van Bingen from the plainchant side, Palestrina's sacred music, John Dowland's vocal and lute songs, Monteverde groundbreaking operatic work, Purcell's instrumental pieces, the fugues of Pachebel and Corelli's sonatas and concerto grossos.

While The World of Early Music is an overview, it is questionable whether the 2 hour and 33 minute length, although certainly generous and comprehensive, is suited for those new to the genre.  This listener's first exposure to the music came with a curious late 1990s release from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's Adventures in Early Music, which, while featuring ensembles that play with period instruments, also has several pieces that extend far beyond the era most people assign for early music and contained, for example, pieces by Mahler and Barber, though beautifully performed.  A couple discs of Gregorian chants followed and an interest in this very specific religious music developed.

Not long after that, a personal connection to early music arose when the brother of a friend, Brian Asawa, recorded duets of lute and vocal music by Dowland and others.  Brian, a countertenor, sent the disc himself and this will be a blog post on its own, as he and his lute-playing partner delivered a fine recording of this little-heard music.

The World of Early Music is a more recent purchase of perhaps a few years back, but, having some grounding and a high degree of appreciation for the genre certainly made it easier to enjoy and digest the extraordinarily generous sample that Naxos produced. 

Though much of the first disc consists of religious works, given that this was the predominant nature of music in the medieval and early renaissance periods, a listener need not be of faith to enjoy the plaintive and simple pieces, many without instrumental accompaniment, that are included.  Other works are that of troubadors from the 12th and 13th centuries, while instrumental music begins to be represented with 15th century early Renaissance performances.  Also of note is a sample of the songs of Sephardic Jews of pre-1492 Spain, consort music which instrumentally took on what previous vocal polyphony provided, and the development of early keyboard music, principally the organ.

The second disc takes the listener, especially those who enjoy the late baroque work of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and those who like opera, closer to modern forms of classical music.  While religious music, it is five of twenty-three samples, and the development of more complex instrumental music is highlighted.  The harpsichord is prominent through the work of uncle and nephew, Luis and Francois Couperin.  Finally, the larger ensemble work of Corelli points the way to those who would follow in the later baroque.

The set comes a very helpful and detailed set of unattributed notes and a list of dozens of Naxos recordings from the series that show the range and variety of the broad "Early Music" category.  It may not be an ideal introduction, but The World of Early Music is certainly a superlative summary.

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