A small, loosely-affiliated group of entities with mutual interests and a common challenge before them unite to pool their resources and vision, in order to form a more perfect union... eek, it sounds like the American Way! It is, therefore, both gratifying and a bit amusing to see a bunch of mostly-European labels with a limited impact on our shores band together to promote their early music releases.
The 30 or so labels represented range from a release list of one to the vast Hungaroton catalogue. Few of us in the business of dealing with recordings have not come in contact with the remarkable figure of Otto Quitner, who first brought much of the Eastern European recorded treasures to national U.S. distribution in the early 1960s. Certainly, when I first spoke to him 20-odd years ago, he was already a famous and exotic dealer in obscure wonders; that he took the time to nurture a local and late-night early music program could explain why over the succeeding decades we have enjoyed so much of the Schola Hungarica on Millennium of Music. Tens of thousands of releases have passed through the distributorship over thirty-five years; hundreds of labels have come and gone through the group (called "Qualiton" for one of the early Hungarian labels), with about 120 currently in the catalogue. Here and there, one of the early music discs would break out and distinguish itself. Classical director Ron Mannarino and marketer Dave Osenberg had an idea: why not get the labels with a strong early music presence to band together one umbrella. Like the European Union, nobody wanted to lose their individual identity. And, like the EU (or any other "U"), everybody wanted a piece of the action. The solution was a new name with a special logo, and stickers that could be placed on the CD cases without obscuring the look of the original label. Advertising dollars could be consolidated, and a lot of relatively little guys could play in the same league with the few remaining big boys. The name chosen is Gioia Musica, and even among material at hand there is indeed much to celebrate.
Let's begin with that new label with one release. It is the first effort by Dr. Peter Czornyj since he left Archiv in the crumbling Polygram family to establish his own label, called Glissando. The release features Alexander Blachly's Pomerium ensemble, and is called Musica Vaticana (Glissando 770.001) since the material comes from Vatican Library manuscripts. Even in the light of the Czornyj/Blachly collaboration on Archiv that received a GrammyT nomination for 1998, this new effort must be considered a stellar effort. The natural ease and fluidity of Pomerium with Josquin is here; but that same effortless mastery applies to more-rarely heard pieces by Festa, Mouton, and Willaert, with an especially breathtaking addition to the many recent rediscoveries of obscure settings of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Elzxar Gener, called Carpentras, gave us a work that seems filled with the warmth and light of the south of France that was his home. Josquin-like polyphony gives way to homophonic, chord-based sections that give urgency and intensity to the text, and no Pope could have heard a better performance than that of Pomerium. Spain gives us two labels. Glossa was founded by a vihuelist (!), José Miguel Moreno with his brother Emilio. One may experience Moreno's range in one of those three-CDs-for-the-price-of-two sets created for last year's commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the death of Philip II, in the collection "Realities and Illusions: Music and Ideas around Philip II of Spain" (Glossa GSP-98001). Two extensive vihuela discs are enhanced with a disc where Moreno's Ensemble la Romanesca convincingly performs us some of the consort and vocal music of Spain's Golden Age. Glossa's new effort, a sub-label called "Nouvelle Vision," is characterized by a fascinating (if eccentric) dance across three centuries of music by Frans Brüggen's new ensemble, which he calls "The Sour Cream Legacy"
One of the original Glossa founders, José Carlos Cabello, broke off in 1995 to create Cantus, a label of extraordinary aesthetic and musicological standards. Some groups simply shifted: La Venexiana, superb interpreters of Italian music at the cusp of the Baroque, gave Sigismondo d'India's Third Book of Madrigals to Glossa (GCD-920903) before passionately presenting Barbara Strozzi's First Book on Cantus (C-9612). The jewel in the Cantus crown is winning the Ensemble Gilles Binchois; the recording of Machaut's "Le jugement du Roi de Navarre" (C-9626) is the modern equivalent of an illuminated book of hours: beautiful to hold, read, and hear, it is an effort worthy of the universal praise it has acquired. Another label creator who left a previous engagement was Tim Smithies, who left Nimbus to create Metronome. Famous in the early music universe as the original home of the Orlando Consort (five recording over four years until Peter Czornyj grabbed them for Archiv), the label has since been a place of good groups and fun concept albums: the Concordia Ensemble and "Music for Mona Lisa" (MET-CD-1023), and I Fagiolini with "All the King's Horses" (MET-CD-1013). Metronome's real coup, however, is the recent two-CD set with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Oxford directed by Stephen Darlington (say.didn't they used to be on Nimbus?). The recording of early Tudor masses from the Forrest-Heather Partbooks in the Bodelian Library opens a window to the time of John Taverner by revealing the quality of two lesser-known contemporaries, Thomas Ashwell and Hugh Aston. It is stunning if you know Hugh Aston for his justly famous "Hornpype" and maybe as the composer of "My Lady Carey's Dompe" to hear the fifty-minute Missa Videte manus meas (MET-CD-1030). So that's five or six of the many labels. Some deserve entire articles unto themselves: the wonderful Accent label, founded by flautist Andreas Glatt , home to some of the great recordings of 17th century repertoire; the quixotic K 617, whose "Chemins du Baroques" series put the same era on the map but with music from the New World in both Americas; Robert von Bahr's 25-year-old BIS label, who had 70-odd early music titles in his catalogue of nearly 900 recordings; the incomparable Christophorus, who supplied the material for so many of the early Nonesuch early music recordings where many of us discovered the field in the first place, and who still grow strong. Maybe this new union will survive after all.