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The Spirits of England and France: Music for Court and Church from the later Middle Ages
PART I: The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
ANONYMOUS
Quant la douce jouvencelle
(a,f,g) [3:51]
(John) COOKE (c.1385-?1442)
Gloria
(a,b,c,f,g) [4:09]
Matteo Da PERUGIA (fl.1400-1416)
Belle sans per
(a,f,g) [3:55]
Guillaume De MACHAUT (c.1300-1377)
Ay mi! dame de valour
(d) [2:49]
ANONYMOUS
En cest Mois de May
(b,c,f,g) [2:14]
Laus detur multipharia (a,c,f,g) [3:45]
Credo (a,b,e,f,g) [5:36]
La uitime estampie real (h) [1:23]
PYKINI (fl.c.1364-1389)
Plaisance, or tost
(b,c,f,g) [2:16]
PART II: The twelfth and thirteenth centuries
ANONYMOUS
Deduc, Syon, uberrimas
(b,c) [4:27]
La septime estampie real (h) [1:07]
Je ne puis / Par un matin / Le premier jor / IUSTUS (b,c,d,e) [4 :33]
Beata nobis gaudia (b) [2:37]
Virgo plena gratie / Virgo plena gratie / [VIR]GO (b,d,e) [3:04]
La quarte estampie real (h) [2:23]
Crucifigat omnes (c) [2:16]
Flos in monte cernitur (b,d,e) [3:36]
In Rama sonat gemitus (e) [2:32]
PEROTINUS? (fl. c.1200)
Presul nostri temporis
(b,d,e) [2:10]
ANONYMOUS
Ave Maria
(b,d,e) [2:21]
Gothic Voices (Rogers Covey-Crump (a); Paul Agnew (b); Julian Podger (c); Andrew Tusa (d); Leigh Nixon (e) tenor; Stephen Charlesworth (f); Henry Wickham (g) bass; with Pavlo Beznosiuk medieval fiddle (h)/Christopher Page, director)
rec. Boxgrove Priory, West Sussex, England, 11-13 March, 1994. DDD.
Booklet with texts, translations and notes in English, French and German.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55281 [62:40]



If I seem to be concentrating on Hyperion’s bargain reissue label, there are very good reasons: there has recently been a stream of excellent CDs from this source which I somehow missed first time round or where the booklet has become so dog-eared with regular use that it needs replacing.
 
Amongst these desirable reissues are several from Gothic Voices. I have already enthusiastically reviewed The Garden of Zephirus (CDH55289), The Castle of Fair Welcome (CDH55274), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (CDH55273) and Music for the Lion-hearted King (CDH55292) and now turn to The Spirits of England and France. This CD, first issued in 1994, was the first of a series of recordings with the same general title; I hope and believe that it is the intention to reissue all of these in due course. Once again, my chief recommendation for this recording lies in the fact that I paid good money for it.
 
Those who have bought the earlier CDs will note that there are no women’s voices here and that the personnel of Gothic Voices had changed slightly in the intervening years. There need be no fears on this score: the singing is as excellent as before.
 
The sub-title may be slightly misleading, since the music falls into two sections: the fourteenth/fifteenth centuries and the twelfth/thirteenth. Those who think of the pre-Conquest period as ‘The Dark Ages’ and subscribe to Burckhardt’s view that people did not think of themselves as individuals before the age of Dante and Petrarch will be surprised to see the twelfth century described as late-medieval, but modern research has demonstrated both how innovative the twelfth century was, so that some even refer to a twelfth-century renaissance, and also that the earlier period was far from barbaric: both Alfred in England and, to an even greater extent, Charlemagne were patrons of learning and the arts and their period is now properly regarded as the early middle ages.
 
Oddly, the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century pieces come first, perhaps to give the ear something more familiar before the earlier styles. In reviewing The Castle of Fair Welcome I doubted Christopher Page’s assertion that the modern listener will find the music of the fifteenth century more amenable than earlier medieval music, and I do so again here. If anything, the earlier music here may prove the easier to approach and so good are the Gothic Voices in the music of this period that it is a shame that later discs in the series all covered music from the later period.
 
These earlier pieces are all anonymous, with the possible exception of Presul nostri temporis, which may be by Pérotin, to whom a large number of compositions have been attributed, though few of the attributions are secure. If it is by him, it is not one of his best pieces – a setting of a rather obsequious poem in praise of some unnamed prelate – but it is a striking piece in the style of this Parisian composer and it makes a nice foil to the earlier anti-clerical and anti-papal piece, Deduc, Syon, uberrimas. The words of condemnation in Deduc are strong but, cleverly, poet and musician could claim, truthfully, that they are no more than a string of biblical and liturgical texts.
 
The same is true of the lament for the exile of Thomas à Becket, In Rama sonat: the weeping of Rachel for her children, referred to in the gospel and communion-verse for Holy Innocents Day becomes a lament for Becket’s sojourn in France, hardly a cause likely to be in favour at the English court. By an incredible coincidence Becket would himself later be martyred on December 29th, the day after Holy Innocents.
 
The closing Ave Maria makes a fitting conclusion to the CD – a charming little setting, as well sung as anything on the disc, and justifying the decision to place the earlier music last.
 
Those who wish to explore further the music of this earlier period could do much worse than to try Naxos 8.557340, on which Tonus Peregrinus offer the music of Léonin and Pérotin: Gary Higginson’s review on this website urged his readers to go out and buy it instantly. (Recording of the Month). He even compared one track more than favourably with Gothic Voices in Music for the Lion-Hearted King. (Try the Tonus Peregrinus recording of the 14th-century Messe de Tournai and 15th-century St Luke Passion on 8.555861 at the same time.)
 
Hyperion offer Laus detur multipharia, from the later music, on their website as a sampler and this piece in praise of St Catherine is as good a place as any to try. Catherine figured prominently in medieval England: her legend is contained in early-thirteenth-century manuscripts in conjunction with two other important Middle English texts in praise of virginity, Hali Meiðhad and Sawles Warde. This is an attractive piece, though one imagines that a later composer would have made a more dramatic setting of the ending, where Catherine’s famous wheel breaks: the words are dramatic enough – “the whole device [machina] of the evil-doers breaks apart.” (There is a pun here, missed in the translation because it is hard to render in English, since machina may refer both to the device (the wheel) and the deviousness (machination) of those who construct it.)
 
I also particularly liked Andrew Tusa’s solo performance of Machaut’s Ay mi!, but then Machaut’s music stands head and shoulders above that of his contemporaries for me, not only because of his influence on Chaucer but also because his Messe de Nostre Dame marks the high point of musical achievement before the great Tudor polyphonists. My favourite recording of this Mass, set in its proper plainsong context by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois directed by Dominique Vellard, on Harmonic H/CD8931, seems no longer to be available in the UK – reviewed by Tony Haywood on this website, in July 2002, was less enthusiastic than I am, in any case – so I recommend the Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly version on Naxos 8.553833.
 
Pavlo Beznosiuk’s three estampies on the medieval fiddle also deserve mention. Chrisopher Page makes a strong case for performing these on a solo instrument rather than an ensemble, and even throws doubt on the fact that they were dance-music.
 
I have very few reservations about this Helios disc. The fact that the text display takes precedence over the track timings I found more annoying than useful. More seriously, Christopher Page’s notes are aimed more at the scholar than the general listener. He draws attention to the hocketing passages in Laus detur without explaining what ‘hocketing’ means. Other terms which go unexplained and for which the uninitiated may need to have resort to a musical encyclopaedia include virelai, ars subtilior, ars nova, monophonic and isorhythmic motet and conductus. Little explanation is given for how some pieces have three or even four texts and the printed text of one of these (track 12 Je ne puis, etc.) marks duplum and triplum passages without explaining what these terms mean.
 
This is not the place for a lecture on medieval music nor am I the person to give it. If a spirit of enquiry inspires listeners to find out more, so much the better, but I fear that many will be mystified and put off by reading the notes. A good place to start looking would be the article on The Medieval Hocket at The Orb. This is a generally very reliable site on all matters medieval; the texts which it offers have often saved me trips to the British Library or the Bodleian. For a list of other medieval-music resources at this site and links to other reliable sites, go to the index for that site.
 
Now, when can we expect further reissues from this series?
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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