Discover Early Music
Discover Early Music is part of a series covering the history of Western classical music, from medieval times to the present day; each volume contains two CDs and a booklet of about 100 pages, mostly given over to a historical essay keyed to the selections included. One may wonder, when looking at these discs, why no one has done this before, especially in view of book publishers' inability to come up with a good single-volume history with any kind of readability and flair. The reason is that it would be difficult for any label other than Naxos, the plucky Hong Kong-based outfit that has gleefully proved all the doubters wrong by expanding while everyone else was contracting, to pull it off; only Naxos has the vast and varied catalog to make a full-fledged survey of especially the early periods possible. One effect of this project's origins on Naxos is that the medieval period is somewhat underrepresented; we get only eight pieces on the first CD to cover the entire period from Gregorian chant to the era of Dufay and Dunstable in the middle of the fifteenth century. In the early sections of the booklet essay by British editor and writer Lucien Jenkins, one can get through quite a few paragraphs without coming to any music. If there's a hole in the Naxos catalog, it's in the early medieval era, which is usually taken on by specialist ensembles that don't line up with Naxos' cost-cutting aesthetic. But that disadvantage is far outweighed by the generally solid execution of the whole project. One can quibble with Jenkins' text at isolated moments, but overall it is a clear, well-informed introduction. If there's one reason for the public's comparative lack of interest in the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as compared with the art of the era, it is that appreciating the technique of a Josquin or a Machaut, as opposed to a Michelangelo or Giotto, depends on an awareness of technical processes that are not directly visible. In dealing with more complex forms, Jenkins excels. He lays out just enough information to make the general listener aware of the kinds of things that are happening without going into intimidating detail. The performances vary, but the Naxos predilection for recording regional ensembles actually works to the project's advantage; nothing sounds strange when juxtaposed with its neighbor on the disc. This album should be ideally suited to the needs of adult-enrichment classes, tourists, and anyone else interested in an introduction to the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that can be covered in a few evenings. One caveat: the term early music is sometimes understood to include part of the Baroque era, but this album cuts off with Palestrina, at the end of the sixteenth century.