Various Artists

Ars subtilior: Dawn of the Renaissance

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Ars Subtilior: Dawn of the Renaissance is a collection that is the seventh volume in the Harmonia Mundi series Century. This is an idea previously pursued in the 1990s by the similarly named but wholly different concern Deutsche Harmonia Mundi as Century Classics. Century consists of several discs devoted to a progressive study of the history of music from the Gothic era up to the present. Ars Subtilor covers the period from the first stirrings of the Renaissance amid the papal court in Avignon circa 1370 through the advent of "countenance Angloise" circa 1420 and ending with the early Franco-Flemish school, which includes Dufay and Ockeghem. Obviously, Harmonia Mundi has a rich store of such music to draw upon, some recorded performances within its library being among the best ever made of this literature. For the opening section, for example, they are able to represent the composers of the avant-garde ars subtilior through tracks selected from holdings on the Ferrara Ensemble and Ensemble Organum -- impressive talents indeed.

For expert listeners already well equipped with music from this era -- nay, even copies of the original discs from which these things are taken -- acquiring Ars Subtilior: Dawn of the Renaissance will likely prove to be overkill. Nonetheless, for those who need a way into this rarefied area of music history, there is probably nothing better for such purpose than this disc. The front cover, being a detail taken from a master painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, is in itself almost irresistibly attractive and perfectly illustrates the period and style of this music. The layout is easy to follow and the notes are informative; all in all Ars Subtilior: Dawn of the Renaissance is an excellent survey of a turbulent time that witnessed major upheavals in musical style and content -- one that should be better known to anyone who takes music seriously.

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