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Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474)
The Court of Savoy

Introit: Venite benedicti  [5:51] 
Missa Se la face ay pale - Kyrie  [3:36] 
Gloria  [9:27] 
Missa Sancti Mauritii - Gradual: Gloriosus Deus  [6:05] 
Alleluia: Iudicabunt sancti  [5:50] 
Missa Se la face ay pale - Credo  [9:14] 
Missa Sancti Mauritii - Offertory: Mirabilis Deus  [4:15] 
Missa Se la face ay pale - Sanctus  [7:08] 
Agnus Dei  [5:03] 
Missa Sancti Mauritii - Communion: Gaudete iusti  [2:18] 
Motet - O très piteulx  [3:31] 
Ballade - Se la face ay pale  [3:03] 
Motet - Magnanime gentis  [6:37]
The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman 
rec. All Souls College, Oxford, UK, 13-16 February 2008. DDD.
Booklet with texts and translations.
HYPERION CDA67715 [72:03]
Experience Classicsonline

This new Hyperion recording of Dufay’s mass cycle of the late 1450s enters a fairly competitive market, but it has one trick up its sleeve.
 
On the Lyrichord Early Music label, Capella Cordina, directed by the Dufay scholar Alejandro Planchart, offer Dufay’s chanson Se la face ay pale and the five movements of the Missa Se la face ay pale without any attempt to place them in liturgical context.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course; it’s the normal practice in performing late medieval and renaissance mass settings, and the Lyrichord 2-CD set includes a good deal of other music by Dufay, including the Missa Sancti Jacobi.  Both CDs in this set are rather short and I rather think that Lyrichord recordings are not currently generally available in the UK, making an eMusic download the only way to obtain this recording.
 
The Hilliard Ensemble perform the five movements of the Mass interspersed with other Dufay compositions on a Coro reissue of a 1990s recording (COR16055) and there is also a performance by the Tölzer Knabenchor and Collegium Aureum on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.  The Coro CD received a generally warm welcome.
 
The strongest competition, however, for the new recording comes from a 2003 Alpha recording by Diabolus in Musica (Alpha051).  As I write, this recording is also available at super-budget price with the 2008 Alpha catalogue; the catalogue is an inseparable part of the CD package, which makes the whole thing rather bulky – when Harmonia Mundi do this, they put a removable cardboard wrapper around the separate CD and catalogue – but the saving is very worthwhile.  It certainly tempted me to replace my now elderly Gillesberger/Vanguard version (not currently available, nor is Munrow’s EMI/Virgin CD) and I haven’t regretted the substitution.
 
The trick up the sleeve of the new recording is a McCreesh-style reconstruction of the polyphonic sections of a complete Mass.  The Alpha recording employs the plainchant propers – Gradual, Sequence, Offertory and Ite missa est – for Trinity Sunday from a fourteenth-century missal from Cambrai Cathedral (MS BN Latin 17311) and polyphonic settings of the Introit, Alleluia and Communion from MS88 in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Trento (ca.1455) long believed to have been composed by Dufay himself.  Hyperion go one better by taking all the propers from a polyphonic Mass in honour of St Maurice, plausibly associated with the Court of Savoy and only slightly less plausibly with Dufay himself.
 
Despite their name, there is nothing diabolical about the performances by Diabolus in musica – if anything, their singing is a little understated and their tempi on the slow side.  Where the Binchois Consort on the new recording take 3:36 for the Kyrie, Diabolus take 4:40.   Similar, though slightly less extreme, differences apply in the other movements.  I’m playing the Alpha recording as I write this paragraph to make sure that they don’t sound too slow; in fact, what I hear is a deliberate performance of the Kyrie, bringing out the penitential significance of the words – Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy – but not one which drags.  They didn’t record the music in a particularly reverberant acoustic, but this would be about the right tempo for a large church or cathedral – or in the ducal chapel at Savoy, as illustrated on the cover of the Hyperion CD.  Nor do the Gloria, or any of the remaining sections drag; if you can still obtain this in its super-bargain version, you need have no hesitation.  It’s also available to download from eMusic – even cheaper still.
 
I must admit, however, that, after a comparatively short acquaintance, the Alpha recording is likely to be replaced for regular listening by the new Hyperion CD.  The brisker tempi adopted by the Binchois Consort are perfectly apt – never remotely too fast – and more in line with Planchart’s on Lyrichord.  There’s nothing at all wrong with the Alpha CD, but listening to the Hyperion immediately afterwards adds that little indefinable extra that makes a very good recording potentially a great one; it’s a completely inadequate epithet, but the best I can come up with is to call the new recording brighter.  Despite the faster tempi, the Binchois Consort bring out the weight just as well and they stress the beauty even more effectively than Diabolus. 
 
The Binchois Consort have already exhausted my critical vocabulary in reviewing the Hyperion Helios reissue of their performance of Dufay’s Mass for St Anthony of Padua (CDH55271 – see review).  What I haven’t said there has been said by Em Marshall in reviewing another Dufay recording by the Consort (CDA67474 – see review) and by Robert Hugill in his review of yet another CD, Music for St James (Helios CDH55272 – see review.)  The only possible reason not to buy the new CD would be the availability of those two Helios reissues at such a reasonable price, two CDs for less than the price of one.
 
I’ve just completed my Recordings of the Year for 2008, in which CDH55271 was a strong contender; if continued listening proves as rewarding as first impressions, the new CD will be a hot contender for a Recording of the Year 2009.  The only reason why I haven’t made it a Recording of the Month is that I expect to award that accolade to the new Linn/Dunedin Consort recording of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.
 
The Alpha recording is lavishly presented, as part of their Ut pictura musica series, in which the music is illustrated with a contemporary work of art, in this case a depiction of the Trinity from a Book of Hours.  The Hyperion recording, you will not be surprised to hear, is equally well presented; the only complaint I have ever had about their packaging is that the booklets are sometimes too large and lavish to get back into the case.  The illustration of the ducal chapel on the cover of this CD may be well known – it features in many a coffee-table book of medieval art – but thoroughly apt.
 
More to the point, the notes in the Hyperion booklet, by Philip Weller, tell the listener just about everything (s)he might want know, not least the rationale behind the inclusion of the other polyphonic movements.  Given that the quality of the music itself, when as well performed as it is here, bears out the attribution, I’m convinced – who else could have written music of this quality at this time?  Whoever the composer, an all-polyphonic solution seems marginally preferable to the part-polyphony/part-chant on the Alpha recording.
 
The Binchois Consort round off their recording with fine performances of the motet O très piteulx, the ballade which provides the cantus firmus of the Mass, Se la face ay pale – why not sing this before the Mass, as on the Lyrichord recording? – and the motet Magnanime gentis.
 
The sound on the Alpha CD is excellent, that on the Hyperion just about as flawless as CD sound can be, with the voices placed just right in the sound perspective.  Clarity of words is not always a major consideration in polyphonic music – both the reformers and the Council of Trent in the next century recalled composers to considerations of verbal audibility – but nothing is lost here owing to the singer’s diction (they employ the French ü sound for the vowel u) or the quality of the recording.  Those who hanker after vinyl should recall how perilously close to distortion LP sound could be in polyphonic music, even with one of the top-range arm/cartridge combinations.
 
If, as seems to be the case, my affections seem to be shifting from the music of Guillaume de Machaut to that of the later Guillaume, Dufay, the Binchois Consort’s recordings will have played no small part in the change.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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