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John DUNSTABLE (c.1390-1453)
Motets and Mass movements: Quam pulcra es [2.38];  Kyrie [6.14]; Gloria a 4 [6.35]; Credo a 4 [8.42]; Gloria [7.48] and Credo [5.59]; Jesu Christi Fili Dei; Sanctus [4.28]; Credo [6.00] and Sanctus [6.13]; Da gaudiorum premia; Agnus dei [5.33]; Veni Sancte Spiritus-Veni Creator [6.56]; Gloria in canon [3.01] (edited by Margaret Bent)
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
Recorded at Chancelade Abbey, Dordogne, France, January 2004 
NAXOS 8.557341 [70.08]

 

 

 

First let us try to establish how the composer’s name should be spelt. It always used to be Dunstable, but Margaret Bent - credited for her help on this CD - in her 1981 ‘Oxford Studies of Composers’ book became the first scholar to spell it Dunstaple. The Hilliard ensemble on their 1984 EMI recording of nine motets called him Dunstable, but the Orlando Consort for their Metronome CD of his music (Met CD 1009) reverted to Dunstaple which appears to be the way he is found in manuscripts, so you ‘Pays ya money and ya takes ya choice’. Even the composer’s date of birth is not really known but we do know that he died on Christmas Eve 1453 probably in his early 60s.

Collections of Dunstable's music are not that common. Apart from those mentioned I can remember an American LP by the New York Pro Musica back in the 1960s and Bruno Turner recorded several works in the early 1970s with Pro Musica Antiqua. This is especially unfortunate as, for a time in the early 15th Century, England led the musical world with a very talented group of musicians and composers some of whose names can be seen in the ‘Old Hall Manuscript’. The ‘fountain head’ of these men was John Dunstable.

At a time in France when extreme rhythmic complexity, new notational methods, and experimental harmony had dominated the musical landscape of the late 14th Century,  Dunstable must have seemed breath of fresh air with clear, elegant lines and the strong use of what we now call the major scale - very sweet and delicate. He influenced Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois and ultimately Josquin. It’s interesting that the change into musical clarity and light came at a time when England was developing its own indigenous style of architecture which we now call the ‘Perpendicular’ period - all light, space and simple beauty as opposed to elaboration and intellectual complexity. That’s not to say that Dunstable’s music is not sometimes complex, especially the isorythmic motets but this complexity is not an end in itself. It allows certain aspects of the text to be focused on more clearly. It’s interesting to remember that Dunstable is almost an exact contemporary of Brunelleschi who designed the copula of Florence’s Duomo, and is often called ‘The first Renaissance Artist’. Dunstable was a polymath himself being also a mathematician and astronomer.

I have waxed lyrical before about Tonus Peregrinus; in fact in September this year (2005) about their Notre-Dame polyphony disc. I also much enjoyed their 2004 release of the ‘Missa Tournai’- therefore my expectations were high. I must admit at this stage that I read two reviews of the disc before my own review copy arrived. One in Gramophone magazine by Fabrice Fitch I will quote “… Suffice it to say that Antony Pitts’ choice of tempo .... results in very slow speeds in duple sections”. Tempo is of course a question of helping to keep the listeners’ attention which I feel Tonus Peregrinus certainly does. Nevertheless I researched this point and my observations do not consistently help me to form the same impression. For example on straight timings of the few pieces I could make comparison with, the Orlando Consort in ‘Veni Sancti Spiritus-Veni Creator’ are 48 seconds faster. However recently discovered and curiously edited canonic ‘Gloria’ works out the same for both groups. Compared with the Hilliard Ensemble Tonus Peregrinus are identical in ‘Quam pulcra es’ but an extraordinary one and a quarter minutes slower in the ‘Da gaudiorum’ Credo movement.

Speaking as one who is especially sensitive to and aware of speed in early music I would warn readers not to be put off by Fitch’s comments. However I do agree with him as far as vocal blend and balance are concerned. I have not noticed this with the group before and it may be caused by the rather reverberant acoustic of Chancelade Abbey - why and how did they come to chose this Abbey? - but the bass Francis Brett is often simply too loud. His vibrato is at odds with the blanched whiteness of the female voices who seem rather recessed in the overall sound-picture.

Then there is the question of accidentals or Musica ficta. Now this is a dangerous area and I don’t want any hate mail but surely Anthony Pitts has gone overboard in ‘Quam pulcra es”. This is perhaps Dunstable’s ‘greatest hit’ and has been often recorded. Here it lacks any semblance of what we now call tonality. It appeals to wobble too much between modes.

On returning to the Hilliard’s recording I was refreshed by its sheer beauty of delivery. Having said all of that, I must add that it is also refreshing to hear Tonus Peregrinus perform this music with ‘guts’. The singers in this new release really ‘go for it’ yet they do not forget for one moment to add sensitive and appropriate dynamics - a really strong forte and a hushed piano.

The repertoire chosen for this CD, some of which has not been recorded before - although that is not confirmed on the disc - is quite tough and somewhat ascetic.

The disc is set out unusually: beginning with ‘Quam pulcra es’. Then we have joined mass movements, a rather dull Kyrie - possibly an early work - and a very fine Gloria and Credo, all performed tutti. To give contrast, and this is a feature I really appreciate, the three-part Gloria and Credo which follow based on the ‘Jesu Christi Fili Dei’ are performed by lower voices who manfully negotiate the incredibly bizarre harmonies. I found myself asking: is this really by Dunstable. I have looked at the score and can vouch for its authenticity. The following Sanctus is given to the women’s voices which make a wonderfully refreshing change but the tessitura seems almost to be too high.

The Credo and Sanctus from the ‘Da Gaudiorum premia’ mass and the ensuing unrelated Agnus Dei are divided between the voices and end with the full ensemble. There follow the ‘Veni Sancte’ and then the canonic Gloria which ends the disc with quite a din. It is set as a double canon with a conjectured ‘pes’- a speculative canon given to the lower voices.

To sum up. The booklet which is adorned with a smiling angel painted by Sassetta has handy notes on the pieces by Anthony Pitts and an explanation of his approach. I would recommend the disc to anyone interested in this repertoire. Snap it up ‘warts and all’. There are things which will annoy and there are moments to savour. The chosen pieces are fascinating and the performances well worth hearing even if they do not quite square with the Dunstable we have until now been led to believe we knew.

Gary Higginson

 



 



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