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.
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.
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
see also Review
by Gary Higginson