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John DUNSTABLE (c. 1390-1435)
Quam Pulchra es; Kyrie JD1; Gloria a 4 JD11; Credo a 4 JD12; Gloria Jesu Fili Christi JD15; Credo Jesu Fili Christi JD 16; Sanctus JD6; Credo Da gaudiorum premia JD17; Sanctus Da gaudiorum premia JD18; Agnus dei JD14; Veni Sancte Spiritus – Veni Creator JD32; Gloria in Canon
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
rec. 5-9 January 2004, Chancelade Abbey, Dordogne.
NAXOS 8.557341 [70.08]


In his lifetime and afterwards, Dunstable was an immensely influential composer; the remarkable spread of his works in manuscripts throughout the continent is testament to this. But this continental success might have influenced his present day reputation in England. Despite being the first major English composer his music is still not common. Thanks to the iconoclasm of the English Reformation, English manuscripts of his music are rare.

Little is known about Dunstable the man. His birth date is estimated from his known dates. It is believed that he spent time in France as a musician to the Duke of Bedford: brother to Henry V and Regent of France. This lack of information means, of course, that we have little knowledge of the origins of Dunstable’s surviving pieces and the groups for whom they were written.

Much has been made of Dunstable’s use of successions of sweet-sounding thirds. In fact Dunstable used a rich harmonic palate and made much use of full triads. But frequently, what will strike the listener is the use of the open fifth and octave. It is the fascination for this sound that separates the choral sound-world of Dunstable from our own musical world.

On this disc, Anthony Pitts and his group of young singers, Tonus Peregrinus, perform a sequence of Dunstable’s mass movements and two of his most well known motets, Quam pulchra es and Veni Sancte Spiritus – Veni Creator Spiritus. This latter motet illustrates the brilliance with which Dunstable takes a very mathematical technique, iso-rhythm, and creates something of magical beauty. In the tenor part of the motets, the same rhythm is repeated in its entirety twice, first one and a half times faster and then twice as fast again; thus giving the piece a wonderful feeling of forward momentum. The upper three voices, setting three different texts, are quite distinct in character. The result belies the dry academic description of its structure. The motet receives a fine performance from Tonus Peregrinus.

The mass segments survive as stand-alone stray movements or related pairs. The most impressive are the Gloria a 4 and the Credo a 4, performed by the full group. The remaining mass movements are all three part. The Gloria Jesu Christi Fili Dei and Credo Jesu Christi Fili Dei use a plainchant cantus firmus (slowed down and made rhythmic) to form the base for the upper two parts. Again the music makes use of iso-rhythm to structure the pieces and give them forward momentum.

These movements are sung by selected individuals from the full group with many passages sung by solo voices. And it is here that I must raise a niggling little quibble. Tonus Peregrinus are a highly talented group of choral singers; as an ensemble they are undoubtedly quite brilliant but individual voices vary. So the solo passages have an uneven feel to them and it must be confessed that not all the singers handle Dunstable’s tricky rhythmic figures quite as well as they could.

The Sanctus  JD6 is performed by upper voices alone and sounds quite stunning. The upper voices are shown off to good effect again in the pair of movements, Gloria Da gaudiorum premia and Credo Da gaudiorum premia, based on a cantus firmus using the plainchant Da Gaudiorum Premia.

Fabrice Fitch in his review in the Gramophone was rather bothered by Anthony Pitts’ choice of tempi which resulted, to Fitch’s ears, in some rather slow tempi in the duple sections. He was also disturbed by some of Pitts’s variants on the standard editions. I must confess that these things bothered me less than my doubts about the standard of the solo voices.

This is undoubtedly a very creditable issue that brings some fine Dunstable performances to a budget-priced CD. I would, perhaps, advise people to save up for the discs by the Hilliard Ensemble or the Orlando Consort. But your £5 will certainly not be wasted if you splash out this disc.

Robert Hugill

see also Review by Gary Higginson




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