Various Artists

Jewels of the Renaissance Era

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It's odd, inasmuch as Renaissance music is unfamiliar even to many listeners enthusiastic about classical music in general, but single-disc introductions to Renaissance music have been rare. This Analekta-label release presumes no knowledge at all, offering single-page overviews not only of what the Renaissance is but also of the notion of classical music itself (the latter in an exceptionally user-hostile font). The range of pieces is appealing if not comprehensive, featuring instrumental dances, madrigals, sacred motets, part of a Palestrina mass, keyboard pieces, chansons and madrigals, and more. Even listeners familiar with the variety of Renaissance traditions will get a pleasant little surprise hearing them all side-by-side like this. The work types are jumbled up on the disc, making the liner notes a little hard to follow (they don't treat the pieces sequentially) but increasing the kaleidoscopic effect.

There are some problems with this all-Canadian anthology of performances, which are never unpleasant but rarely state of the art. The performance of several secular pieces on a brass quintet is anachronistic; there's nothing wrong with playing Renaissance pieces on a brass quintet, but in an introductory context, with no indication of what's going on, it's a poor choice. The children's choir Les petits chanteurs du Mont-Royal is not equal to the demands of Janequin's Le chant des oyseaults, which works much better with a small group of singers anyhow. There's something to be said for getting to know a tradition by plunging right into its best musical representations -- by, say, picking a disc by Jordi Savall and going from there. But for many listeners this collection may fill a big void in the marketplace.

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