Thursday, February 24, 2005

Brain Food 2


Bloch Quartets 1 to 4 played by Griller Quartet

In an earlier post I aked why Domenico Gabrielli's cello works aren't better known. Now this re-issue of the Griller Quartet playing Bloch's four string quartets prompts me to ask the same question - why aren't these quartets programmed today?

Ernest Bloch is one of those unfortunate composers branded by a single work, in his case Schelomo (which I have to confess I wouldn't shed a tear if I didn't ever hear again).. His string quartets, which inhabit a sound world somewhere between Shostakovich and Schoenberg, are very different, and something of a challenge, with the first lasting for almost an hour. But they are most certainly great works which reward exploration.

The sound from these mono 1954 Decca studio recordings is staggeringly good. The producer is my old boss from my EMI days, Peter Andry, recorded when he was at Decca. I was talking to a violin playing friend about why early recordings such as this have such a good string tone. (The various Grumiaux recordings on Philips are another outstanding example). His informed view is that it is not the recording technology that has gone backwards (although some would argue that is also the case), but rather that string playing technique has evolved to a leaner, more analytical sound. If that is the case I think it is a shame, and may explain why so-called 'authentic instrument' recordings with their gutsy string tone are so popular (I was listening to the Salomon Quartet recordings of Mozart using original instrunents on Hyperion the other night, thinking what fantastic sound the players were producing) .

A book remains to be written about the Griller Quartet, who based on these recordings deserve their place up their with the Amadeus and Hollywood in the pantheon of all time great quartets (I must explore their Mozart and Haydn on Dutton). Tantalisingly John Amis writes in his autobiographical 'Amiscellany'..."Later the Grillers went to the States, their stay their ending in stark tragedy when an internal homosexual fracas ended in denunciation to the police and sudden death, at which point the always happily married Sidney Griller came back to England."

In his autobiography A Cellists Life Griller member Colin Hampton writes "(Bloch's) string quartet No 1 is to me one of the great works in this world. It was a logical conclusion, as far as I am concerned, to the Beethoven quartets. I would put Bloch in front of Schubert and Brahms anytime." High, and certainly, controversial praise. Buy this superb Decca set while it is still in the catalogue, and judge for yourself. song, like weather by Norma Winstone and John Taylor

Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone have been grabbing a lot of the jazz press coverage with Songs and Lullabies, driven by a residency at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London's Soho this week.

Norma Winstone is definitely my favourite jazz vocalist, but her earlier release also on Enodoc ....Like song, like weather where she is accompanied on piano by ex-husband John Taylor is my all time favourite. Unlike Songs and Lullabies which is all original compositions ...Like songs, like weather includes a generous helping of standards including I love you Porgy and Alice in Wonderland (how many other jazz standards started life in a Disney film?). Norma Winsone's skill with English (she is so skilled with the language she can play with it in the way I play with a ball, tossing it around before returning to earth) is the real joy for me on all these discs; I don't think it is going over the top to compare her skill to that of a Shakespearian actress.

4 in perspective where she is joined by Fred Hersch, Kenny Wheeler, and Paul Clarvis in a stunning live concert from St Barnabas' Church, Oxford, is also well worth seeking out.

Josquin Desprez, L'Homme Arme performed by Oxford Camerata directed by Jeremy Summerly

Josquin Desprez is deservedly considered to be the pre-eminent late 15th century polyphonist, the leader of an inspired group that includes Obrecht, Brumel, and Isaac. (Josquin also composed a homage to Ockenghem which is in the Flemish polyphonists box I reviewed previously).

This outstanding Naxos recording of Josquin's Missa L'Homme Arme Sexti Toni helps to explain why Josquin is held in such high esteem. Working from the plainchant of L'Homme Arme (which originally was a secular Burgundian love-song) and Lates Dies in Gregorian Mode 6 his mastery and control of the polyphonic layers is extraordinary. If you are new to Renaissance choral music this CD is a wonderful starting point. Josquin will take you down a path from Gregrian Chant to fully blown polyphony, and I wager will leave you wanting more.

This is an outstanding recording at any price. At the Naxos price of £4.99 (or even less in some stores such as Virgin, where I picked up an outstanding Naxos coupling of Vivaldi's Gloria and Bach's Magnificat by the same performaers for the absurd price of £3.99 last week) it is truly exceptional. The Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly hold their own with any of the specialist Renaissance ensembles at budget of full price. Quite justifiably this recording is given a rosette for quality in the influential Penguin CD Guide.


I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

This book is a total dog. I pre-ordered it from Amazon on the strength of thoroughly enjoying Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. I have a theory incidentally that the reason why reader reviews on the Amazon web site are so universally positive is that no one likes to admit being an idiot and shelling out £14 on a total dog. Well let's break the mould - I did. But some good did come out of this book. I was so anxious to rid myself of it that I ended up exploring the BookCrossing web site so I could sent my copy 'out into the wild'. And just for fun I've posted this review to so click this link to see if they have uploaded it.

I Am Charlotte Simmons seems to be some sort of post-menopausal aberration by 73 year old Wolfe - long on sex and swearing, and light (devoid?) of any character development or narrative. The characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes who are not developed from the first page to the last. Wolfe is so pleased that he can make post-menopause man meet testerone overloaded college student that he starts the self-congratulation even before the first page.

I couldn't believe in any of the characters in this shallow book, and I am afraid I ended up despising the author for his self-indulgence (and multi-million dollar advance). We are all allowed one mistake, but at 676 pages (and £20 cover price) I am Charlotte Simmons is a biggie.

Beyond the Notes by Susan Tomes

I am something of a sucker for 'behind the scenes' books by chamber musicians, and this one is a really great example.

Susan Tomes is now best known as pianist for the highly regarded Florestan Trio. Before that she was a founder member of Domus, a group of musicians striaght out of college who took chamber music onto the road performing in a geodesic dome (hence Domus) in an admirable, but idealistic, attempt to reach new audiences. The multi-talented Ms. Tomes is also a fne journalist and regular columnist for The Guardian.

Beyond the Notes is a lot more than a good 'behind the scenes' book. It questions, and debates, many of the fundamental conventions of performing chamber music, including the very relationship between performer and audience. It also chronicles in diary form the author's metamorphosis from musical maverick to mainstream performer.

Like the Florestan's many superb recordings Beyond the Notes is brilliantly researched, skillfully executed, and beautifully presented (by independent East Anglian publisher publisher Boydell and Brewer). Recommended.

Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

I am currently taking a stroll through the great contemporary novels. A couple of weeks ago it was Ian McEwans Saturday, this week Alan Hollinghurst's A Line of Beauty.

This 2004 Booker Prize winner is a razor-sharp commentary on Thatcher boom years. Set in the summer of 1983, 20 year old Nick Guest moves into the Hampstead household of an ambitious Conservative MP, and as they say, it is mostly downhill from there. Scandal, cocaine (one of the meanings of the line of beauty of the title) and Aids are just part of the landscape of this superb, but bleak, novel.

When it won the Booker there was a considerable amount of 'Gay novel wins Booker' type coverage. Well to be fair, this is an overtly gay novel, rather than a novel by a gay author. But it is certainly none the worse for that. A Line of Beauty is a great novel which just like Ian McEwan (and Charles Dickens and other masters of the genre) uses fiction to mirror contemporary events.

Alan Hollinghurst

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Serendipity 2

In my post Serendipity and Collaborative Filtering I tried, somewhat clumsily, to explain what On An Overgrown Path was all about, and wrote..."the site will really work if it triggers more postings that open up Overgrown Paths from some of my own postings".

Image from Ruth Phillips web site:

Today brought a fantastic example of one of those overgrown paths opening up. I received a message in response to my posting on the Gabrielli cello works from Meanwhile, here in France which is a really excellent blog run by the fine cellist Ruth Phillips, who is also a teacher, and pioneer in music therapy. Ruth also has her own web site for her various activities which is well worth visiting. She also (lucky lady) lives in the Vaucluse, a few miles from L'Abbaye of Ste Madeleine visited in Pliable's Travels. Ruth's husband, the artist Julian Merrow-Smith, also has a wonderful web site, and to make it a clean sweep for the bloggers has his own artist's studio blog Permanent Red.

Meanwhile, here in France...... eat your heart out

It is great to find serendipidity kicking in. But it is even better to find someone that is making music work beyond the CD player and concert hall (or as Ruth writes "it is far more important than repeating mindlessly yet another Mozart 40 on a 3 hr rehearsal"). The work done by Professor Paul Robertson using the music of Bach with Alzheimer's sufferers, which sadly claimed Bernard Levin last year - is also worthy of the highest respect; see his web site Music, Mind and Spirit.

On sale from Julian Merrow-Smith's online gallery of his own paintings

I am aware though that there is a fine line here between music therapy and good old fashioned mumbo jombo. CD's of Mozart for Babies worry me in my favourite independent CD store, Prelude Records in Norwich. I have a passion for Gregorian Chant, but am nervous about the many Relax with Gregorian compilations that fill the budget shelves. (Katharine Le Mee the author of the highly recommended The Benedictine Gift to Music has also written an interesting little volume Chant: The Origins, Form, Practice, and Healing Power of Gregorian Chant). But the evidence seems to be there, the "Chalice of Repose" project in Missoula, Montana, makes live music available to terminally ill cancer patients (and which in another fascinating thread uses the Benedictine Cluniac tradition of monastic medicine). Doctors involved in the "Chalice of Repose" project were sceptical at first, but there is now a general view that although difficult to support with scientific theory the treatment works (although their web site does seem to wander into the area of Celestial Harmony CD's, but to stay open-mined here is a link to harpist Therese Schroeder-Sheker who is very involved in the project) . It is worth remembering that an early form of music therapy was Muzak, which originated in te 1920's to calm lift (elevator) passengers! For an informed take on this very 'grey' area, where pre-conceptions need to be controlled, see a well balanced article originally published in The Economist in 2001, and now available on the web.

Whatever the evidence at this stage classical music as an enabler in both education and healing is something Pliable believes passionately in, and it is one of the most exciting threads that has come out of On An Overgrown Path so far.

The Old Farmhouse Studio, Prof Paul Robertson's
Music, Mind and Spirit Trust and Retreat

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Friday, February 18, 2005


I wrote a rave review below for Peter Maxwell Davies' Masses; and here is another rave review, this time for his ground-breaking web site MaxOpus.


The classical record companies have done little to adapt to the digital revolution other than promote young violinists in wet T-shirts. The orchestras have been a little more entrepreneurial in setting up their own labels as the majors such as Universal have imploded under the weight of their own egos, but laudable as LSO Live and the other orchestra owned labels are, they really are no more than a Band-Aid (sorry about the pun) as the industry haemorrhages CD buyers and concert audiences. (The trend is illustrated by the fact that two of the three cycles of Bach Cantatas currently being recorded are on artist owned labels after Universal owned DGG and Warner owned Erato pulled the plug on the original corporate backed ventures - John Eliot Gardiner releases his recordings on his own Soli Deo Gloria label, and Ton Koopman on Antoine Marchand; the third is from enterprising Swedish independent BIS and is recorded in Japan).

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

But the real knight's move (puns are really flowing today) comes from our own seventy year-old Master of the Queen's Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies who has added a beautiful and functional web site to his list of compositions. Frustrated by the lack of exploitation of his compositions, Max has purchased back copyrights, and invested heavily in developing the elegant, simple, and effective MaxOpus web site. The site offers long excerpt streams coupled with a pricing policy based on the length of the download. So a short overture costs half the price of a 40 minute symphony which can be downloaded for around £3. If you are not from the download generation MaxOpus covers all the bases (or should that be basses?) with a custom burning and mailing service for your own selection from Max's opuses.

And the site is about a lot more than music downloads. It includes listings of his works and publishers, scholarly commentaries, biographies and links. It is simply a first class internet resource, and a commercial one to boot. (A quick check shows that the Google page rank for the site is already up to a strong 6/10 which already equals the established LSO Live site). A brilliant concept, with inspired execution. It sounds like my review of Max's Missa Parvula, but I am also referring to his web site MaxOpus. Why can one of our greatest living composers, who for years lived on the Orkney island of Hoy without electricity and with a wind-up gramophone, deliver a service like this when all the highly paid music executives can do is slash and burn their way through the classical archives?
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Brain Food - 1.

Reading................. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami - the first novel I have read by this Japanese author, who apparentely has a cult following in Japan and elsewhere (I bought it incidentally for 99p in an Ottakars special promotional edition, an excellent initiative that has introduced me to a writerI otherwise probably wouldn't have found). A very readable 'rites of passage' type novel, if a little self indulgent. Surprisingly this is not an early Murami novel, as it does show some of the excesses (and appeal) of first novels such as The Magus. It does suffer from the flaw that death seems to be the preferred way of resolving the characters, three suicides and one from natural causes is I think a fair definition of excess. I thought it could have done with some tighter editing in places, but credit to the excellent translation by Jay Rubin. Nice scene setting detail with references to music from the 60's; not just Beatles as in the title but Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman etc. Very atmospheric. I've ordered up Kafka on the Shore on the strength of this, so it has led me down a new Overgrown Path. Saturday by Ian McEwan - what can I say about this except excellent? It really confirms McEwan as a really major writer. Relevant, wide ranging, gripping, thought provoking, brilliantly researched (especially the brain surgery passages). I have to say that when I read the previews I thought the setting (London on the day of the anti-Iraq war demonstration) was just too hip to work. But I was wrong, it is a brilliant novel, and deserves to win the Booker and everything else. The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez - this novel which has gone straight into a UK paperback from the Spanish original has attracted a lot of good reviews. It is written by Guillermo Marinez, an Argentinian Professor of Mathematics (see photo below), and is a good old fashioned murder story with a very strong mathematical thread running through it. The maths theory is advanced enough to raise the novel above the typical run of the mill 'who dun it', but doesn't need a maths doctorate to follow. Very enjoyable, definitely more substance than your average murder mystery, but not a masterpiece to my mind. Listening.............. Sacred Music by Peter Maxwell Davies (Hyperion) - an exceptional disc. The great discovery for me is the relatively austere Missa Parvula set for upper voices singing in unison with organ. Despite the gap in five hundred years there is a clear thread that links medieval polyphony to these works. Wonderful music, brilliant recording made in Westminster Cathedral. The organ sound on my newly acquired B and W Nautilus 803 speakers is something to die for. Wonderful singing from the Westminster Cathedral Choir under Martin Baker. Just for fun I played this CD 'blind' to a former colleague and great friend who has made a subtantial contribution to English choral music on record. He was a bit less impressed - here are his comments: Re. Mystery record - The Missa for boys couldn't have been written without Britten; very derivative. Thought perhaps Jonathan Harvey, but remembered you mentioned Maxwell Davies website etc, and it could well be him. Catholic sound. Westminster Cathedral, for whom Ben wrote his Missa Brevis? Definitely Neumann 684 mikes, switched sporadically, without asimuth. Cathedral Music by Christopher Tye (Hyperion Dyad budget) - This discovery came as a thread from the sleeve note of the Maxwell Davies' Masses above. Christopher Tye lived and composed in East Anglia where this blog is composed. Beautiful music with a distinctive voice that anticipates Byrd, and certainly stands with him in the pantheon of English polyphonists. Wonderful performances by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral under David Hill. As if all that wasn't enough to recommend it, the disc is on the Hyperion budget Dyad label, and cost me just £5.99. Can such great things really come so cheap? What it says by Marc Copland and Gary Peacock (Sketch) - this one is for all of you who think Pliable listens to nothing other than Gregorian Chant and medieval polyphony. I am a great fan of the jazz pianist Marc Copland and have got most of his albums on Sketch (including the difficult to find but worth searching out, duo with Ralph Towner which is only available in a Japanese pressing - I bought mine in Frankfurt last year). Here Copland works with bassist Gary Peacock. They are all original compositions which stay on my side of 'free' . Great sound (edited as are many of these great Sketch recordings in Pernes les Fontaines in Provence where Pliable will be heading to in June). I'm becoming more and more interested in the lower string sound, and am fascinated by the thread from Bach (and Gabrielli - see below) on the cello to the jazz bass players like Gary Peacock. Complete works for cello by Domenico Gabrielli (Tactus) - a real find. If you love the Bach Cello Suites (and who doesn't) or get excited over the visceral sound of Gary Peacock's bass in the disc above this one s for you. Until I came across these works the name Gabrielli meant St Mark's in Venice and lots of brass. The real gems on this disc are the Ricecars for unaccompanied cello. I simply don't understand why these aren't as well known as the Bach suites. Wonderful sound from period instruments of course. My first purchase from the Italian Tactus label , but definitely not the last (in fact this post has prompted me to order up their recrding of Battista's cello works). Palestrina Masses by Pro Cantione Antiqua (Brilliant Classics) - just so my reputation as a polyphonic obsessive remains intact I offer with this five disc set of Palestrina Masses. I have raved elsewhere (see my post on their box of masterpeices by the Flemish polyphonists, O Magnum Mysterium) . This box of Palestrina Masses comes for the ludicrously cheap price of £11.99 from the HMV web site. The performers are Pro Cantione Antiqua who were at the forefront of the revival of 'authentic' performances of choral works of this period, so the musicianship is impeccable, and the sound first-class. (Most of the recordings in this set are also available on the budget Regus label, but cost twice as much). If the price wasn't so ridiculously cheap I would quibble about the lack of any sleeve notes or documentation such as recording venues and dates (unlike O Magnum Mysterium which has excellent documentation). Also it is a shame that jewel cases rather than cardboard sleeves are used as storage space becomes a problem with so many fantastic releases on this super bargain label (The problem of shelf space for CD's and books is a real one for Pliable, an interesting lateral solution is offered by BookCrossing). But it is the music, and the price, that matters more than storage space. And one again this is a truly Brilliant bargain. Piano Sonatas by Haydn (Brilliant Classics) - At the risk of sounding like a PR representative for Brilliant Classics (who I have absolutely no connection with, other than being a very enthusiastic customer) I finish with their box of the complete piano sonatas by Haydn. This is one of those works where to buy the complete 10 CD set on full or mid-price is a serious investment by anyone's standards. But again Brilliant Classics have solved the problem by making a new recording of the complete sonatas using five different pianists using their own chosen fortepianos, but recorded in the same venue at around the same time to maintain consistency of sound. There is no need to worry about the quality as well as the price being super budget. With pianists of the quality of Bart van Oort and Yoshiko Kojima these performances stand comparison with any on full price. Yes, they do use all use a fortepiano, but there is a lot of body to the recording, and the sound is definitely acceptable to a wide church of listeners, as opposed to authentic performance fanatics. This Brilliant Classic release comes in their 'wallet' style packaging, not ten jewel cases, so it doesn't take up a complete bookshelf. Documentation is first class including details of the provenance of every sonata, in fact the information provided surpasses most full price release. These ten CDs which will give more than eleven hours of pleasure and exploration can be bought from the HMV web site for just £23.99 plus £1 carriage,need I say more? Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The armchair pilgrim


One of the most interesting books I have read recently is 'Accidental Pilgrim', the story of David Moore's pilgrimage retracing the steps of the VIth Century Saint Columbanus , which I wrote about in my recent post.

Monasteries and pilgrimage have been a recurring thread on The Overgrown Path, and another book which has given a lot of pleasure is Kevin Wright's guide to European Monastery and Convent Guesthouses. Last autumn I stayed in the Benedictine Abbey of Ste Madeleine in the Vaucluse, in France, and this guide gives details of hundreds of similar religous houses which offer accomodation, or are worth a visit.


It is a wonderful book for the armchair pilgrim. But it also offers more than just a listing of monasteries. Kevin Wright gives a very useful overview of the diferent monastic orders, and their histories. There is a also a more detailed section on Solesmes Abbey which has done so much for the scholarship and use of Gregorian Chant within the church litury. There is also an excellent list of useful web sites and links. Supporting the book are online maps which show the location of all the monasteries listed.

European Monastery and Convent Guesthouses comes highly recommended. It is a wonderful way to wander through the amazing diversity and history of European monasteries, as well as a really useful resource for anyone thinking of making a retreat.

Solesmes Abbey

Monday, February 14, 2005

Improvisation 2....


For the phenomenom of music is nothing other than a phenomenom of speculatiuon. There is nothing in this expression that should frighten you. It simply presupposes that the basis of musical creation is a preliminary feeling out, a will moving firt in an abstract realm with the objet of giving shape to something concrete. The elements at which thi spoeculationnecessarily aims are those of sound and time. Music is inconceivable apart from these two elements.

Igor Stravinsky - The Poetics of Music

The Overgrown Path to Gesualdo led me on to Dufay's Missa L'Homme Arme in the performance on CD by the Oxford Camerata conducted by Jeremy Summerly (Naxos' Early Music series isn't just ridiculously cheap, it is also ridiculously good).

An Internet search on Dufay led me to a recording which I had heard a lot about, but had ignored due to its cult popularity in the 90's.

I was quite wrong to ignore Officium, the Hilliard Ensemble's inspirational collabaration with saxophonist Jan Garbareck. Although it is sacrilege to say it 75 minutes of continuous medieval polyphony can be too bland a dish for some tastes. Garbareck's saxophone adds the spice to the Hilliard's main course. And yes, I would say I sometimes wish the sax took more of a back seat, but that only sharpened my appetite for polyphony without the spice, and there is a lot of that on my shelves. (The correct dosage of chant or polyphony is an interesting point. I grew up playing my music on LP's, and because selecting tracks in mid-record was a hazardous task I have the ingrained habit carried over to CD of playing the whole CD, or nothing. Only recently have I found that shorter periods of listening to medieval choral music in between other works acts as a very effective 'sorbet' which noticeably sharpens up my musical perception and appreciation. It is a technique I strongly recommend).


Is Officium improvisation? In the excellent sleeve notes John Potter of the Hilliard Ensemble writes, "What is this music? We don't have a name for it: It is simply what happens when a saxophonist, a vocal quartet, and a record producer met to make music."

One of the very few highlights TV highlights in a very bleak year here in the UK was Channel 4's wonderful documentary about Keith Jarrett 'The art of improvisation', which got me listening to Spheres and The Book of Ways again, and even the Koln Concert. One of the many things that this beautifully produced 90 minute documentary (with mercifully few commercial breaks) brought home was that if Jarrold is a genius, Manfred Eicher founder of ECM Records and creator and producer of Officium, all Jarrett's recordings, and much more, is a double genius.

There is a real role for new approaches like Officium, not the least in opening up new audiences. I recently received an email from a reader which said "I have to say that I am really enjoying your weblog. The boy sculpture looks absolutely amazing. Have also listened to the samples from the Santiago a Cappella CD which sound sublime. Although a secular household we have recently started buying a fair bit of sacred music so I shall put this one on the Christmas list!" If Santiago a Cappella. pushed a button try Officium. Despite its popularity it is challenging, and like everything challenging it is ultimately very rewarding.


Officium has taken me down some new Overgrown Paths. The Hilliard's CD of works by Perotin (one of the earliest known composers, with dates of around 1180-1210 this is Early Music with a capital E!) awaits at the world's best independent classical music store, Prelude Records in Norwich. And Christobal de Morales (the composer of the Hilliard's title track on Officium), Manuel Cardoso,, and John Dunstable, and others beckon, while I have been getting enormous rewards from Brilliant Classics wonderful O Magnus Mysterium 4cd box set...

The Monastery of St Gerold, recording venue for Officium


Friday, February 04, 2005

Brilliant Classics

Today, to say nothing of the inumerable musicains who practise their art with truly wonderful talent, we are witnessing - whether by virtue of some divine influence or the fruit of diligent labour - the infinite flourishingg of composes like Johannes Ockeghem, Johannes Regis, Antoine Busnois, Firmin Caron and Guillaume Fauges, who all pride themselves on following the teachings of such recently deceased masters of this divine art as John Dunstable, Gilles Bichois or Guillaume Dufay.

Johannes Tinctoris, Preface to The Art of Composition, 1477

I wrote in the Danish Thread about the superb value for money recordings available from Dutch classical label Brilliant Classics. One of my 'records of the year' for 2004 would be their 4 CD box O Magnum Mysterium.

Roughly speaking classical music started just before 1400 in Flanders, where an unprecedented burst of creativity formed the Flemish School, producing the most amazing and complex polyphonic choral textures. The masses in this 4 CD set were written for the clerical courts of the time, in Flanders, France and Italy, and were performed in the regular church rites. Despite the theoretical complexity of the choral writing, the music is very accessible. There are some wonderful works to discover in this set; for me the masses of Johannes Ockeghem were a revelation. (There is an informative posting about Ockeghem on the web site of Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker).

The expert performances are directed by Clytus Gottwald with the now sadly disbanded Schola Cantorum Stuttgart who took the admirable decision to disband when they were still on top. Clytus Gottwald also wrote the most informative and illuminating booklet which contrasts with the skimpy offerings of most other budget labels.

All this with excellent packaging and first class sound for a UK price of just £13.99. These Brilliant Classic packages are too good to miss. They can be difficult to track down in the shops, my copy came via the excellent HMV online store which has performed far better than the problem bedevilled Amazon UK over the recent Christmas season.

If you want a first class introduction to medieval polyphony this is the unmissable bargain of the year.

If you are already into religous music of this period here is a list of the works that you can buy for just over £3 a CD.

Guillaume Dufay Missa ‘’Ecce ancilla domini’’
Johannes Ockeghem Missa pro defunctis
Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474)
Missa ‘’Ecce ancilla domini’’ 1463 for 4 voices/für vier Stimmen
Johannes Ockeghem Missa prolationum
Josquin Desprez Missa „Da pacem“
Johannes Ockeghem (1420-1495)
Missa prolationum For 4 voices/Für vier Stimmen
Heinrich FinckSanctus
Johannes Ockeghem
Missa cuiusvis toni
Josquin Desprez Missa super “Malheur me bat”
Heinrich Finck (1445-1527)
Sanctus (from/aus: Missa sex vocum 1512)
Johannes Ockeghem (1420-1495)
Missa cuiusvis toni For 4 voices/Für vier Stimmen
Josquin Desprez (1440-1521)
Missa super “Malheur me bat” For 4 to 6 voices/ Für vier bis sechs Stimmen
Nicolas Gombert Musae Jovis ter maximi
Antoine Brumel Missa „ Et ecce terraemotus“
Heinrich Isaac Missa paschalis
o magnum mysterium
Nicolas Gombert (+ around/um 1556)
Musae Jovis ter maximi
6-part Motets on the death of Josquin Desprez/Sechsstimmige Motette auf den Tod von Josquin Desprez
Antoine Brumel (1460-1520)
Missa „ Et ecce terraemotus“ For 12 voices/Für zwölf Stimmen
Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517)
Missa paschalis For 6 voices/Für sechs Stimmen