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Guillaume DUFAY (1393–1474)
Missa de S Anthonii de Padua [49.59]
O proles Hispaniae [4.28]
The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman
rec. 17-19, 29 January 1996, location not specified
Experience Classicsonline

When Dufay died he left provision in his will for masses to be said in perpetuity for the repose of his soul. This included thirteeen low masses and three annual polyphonic masses, one being specified as his own Mass for St. Antony of Padua. This had been performed annually on the saint’s day for many years before Dufay’s death. The composer left his manuscript of the mass and several antiphons to the Chapel where it was to be performed. We do not know how long this annual performance persisted, but we do know that the chapel was demolished in 1796.

Dufay’s mass did not seem to have survived, but there is quite a quantity of music which has come down to us from his period and might be by Dufay but cannot confidently be ascribed. Thanks to some detective work by David Fallows, the ordinary of the mass was recovered from anonymity in a manuscript in Trent, Italy. But Dufay’s mass, being for a particular saint, would almost certainly have had settings of the propers for that saint’s day. Again more detective work meant that a set of propers in another Trent manuscript have been identified.

We now have ten movements (Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Gradual, Alleluia, Credo, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communion) which are confidently ascribed to Dufay’s Missa de S Anthonii de Padua. But don’t expect a common musical thread to run through them; that was not the way in Dufay’s time. Each of the propers is related to the plainchant setting of the proper and naturally enough there is no musical relationship between the plainchant propers of the saint’s day.  But when this mass was written, the idea of a full polyphonic mass was still rather new - the first one probably appeared in the 1440s - so the disparity between the movements of the ordinary would not have been so obvious.

All this musicology is completely fascinating and is explained in great detail in the CD booklet of the Binchois Consort’s recording of the mass, now reissued by Hyperion. I am a great believer in getting as much background as possible to a recording, but Andrew Kirkman and his group deliver such a vigorous, gripping performance that any question of reading the background disappears, you just want to listen to their performance.

Perhaps part of the impression of their performance comes from the fact that here is an English group giving a very un-English performance. No objectivity or coolness here, instead they sing Dufay’s music with a liveliness, incisiveness and attention to rhythm that makes the music positively toe-tapping.  The group employs just six singers (two counter-tenors, and four tenors) and for most of the time the mass is in just three parts, but such is the brilliance and complexity of Dufay’s writing that you would not know it.

The mass is built on a leisurely scale, which would rather preclude its complete liturgical performance in a modern day setting. There is around 50 minutes of the mass, the Gradual and the Alleluia each last over six minutes. But the sheer scale is part of the work’s charm; we can simply wonder at Dufay’s sheer inventiveness at creating so much infectious polyphony.

This is an engrossing and highly characterful performance. Perhaps there are one or two rough edges, but given the singers’ lively articulation of Dufay’s rhythms this is easily forgivable. Perhaps Kirkman misses just one or two moments of reflection and devotion, but his interpretation is of a piece - and wonderfully attention-grabbing.

This is a wonderful disc and a candidate for one of my discs of the year. Kirkman and his group deliver a confident and vivid interpretation of Dufay’s fine mass which makes the disc a candidate not only for convinced lovers of music of this period but also for the unconvinced as well. I defy anyone to listen to this music and not want to tap their toes!

Robert Hugill 

see also Review by Brian Wilson January BARGAIN OF THE MONTH



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