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Guillaume DUFAY (1397–1474)
Mass for St. James the Greater [41.08]
Rite majorem Jacobum canamus [4.19]
Balsamus et munda cera [4.31]
Gloria [5.52]
Credo [6.50]
Apostolo glorioso [3.47]
Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman
rec. Rickmansworth Masonic School Chapel, 16-18 July 1997
Experience Classicsonline

The one surviving copy of Dufay’s complete Mass for St. James the Greater dates from the late 1420s and was made in the Veneto. This has lent credence to the idea that the mass was associated with the Bishop of Vicenza, Pietro Emiliani.  Emiliani paid for pilgrims to go to Compostela, the influential centre of veneration for the cult of St. James.
On the other hand, Dufay’s motet Rite Majorem which has audible stylistic links to the mass, includes an acrostic on the name of Robert Auclou who was curate at the church of St. Jacques de la Boucherie in Paris during the 1420s; the church was a well-known starting-off point for pilgrims. It is here that links begin to enter the realms of the fanciful. The communion motet in Dufay’s mass is set using the fauxbourdon technique; before leaving mass Pilgrims would have their staffs or bourdons blessed, thus making some commentators suggest a punning link.
In fact, the whole mass might not have been written for St. James at all as the only text which refers to the Saint directly is the Alleluia. Dufay may have written the piece originally for a different venue, even if it is still associated with Robert Auclou.
Whatever its origins, the mass is a remarkable piece written at a time when complete polyphonic masses were something of a novelty. Certainly, at the time Dufay was writing it there were not the sort of standardised procedures for linking movements familiar to later composers. This means that, on first hearing, it can sound a little disparate. This is partly because Dufay sets both the ordinary and the propers and has tailored each movement to its specific location. But we can detect him repeating motivic ideas throughout the mass, suggesting that the work was written as a whole.
This mass is not part of the group of cantus firmus masses from later in Dufay’s career and seems to have been little recorded. Perhaps this is partly because this apparent disparity between the movements can make the work seem difficult to bring off.
On this recording, originally released in 1998 and recently re-issued on Hyperion, Andrew Kirkman and the Binchois Consort seem to make light of the work’s difficulties. In Kirkman’s hands the Mass holds together in a remarkable way, the different movements contrasting but complementing each other to form a remarkable 40 minute span of music.
Speeds seem entirely apposite and it helps that Kirkman and his singers have an infectious way with Dufay’s rhythms. At a certain point you stop worrying about the disparate movements and settle down to enjoy the brilliant musicality of the performance. The eight singers of the consort all have distinctive voices, this is no blandly homogenised ensemble; each line is vividly characterised, but complementary so that the whole is understandable and richly textured.
I had great enthusiasm for Kirkman and the Binchois Consort’s recording of Dufay’s Mass for St. Antony of Padua, included on another Hyperion reissue. And everything I said about that performance applies here as well. This is surely one of those discs to be played to people who perhaps remain unconvinced about music from this period.
The associated motet Rite Majorem, includes a text which details St. James’s life and miracles. It is one of those complexly organised pieces, with two different texts and a use of isorhythm. But Dufay turns what could be an icy academic exercise into a dazzlingly passionate piece which receives a suitable performance from the consort. Of equal complexity of organisation is the motet Balsamus et munda cera, though this is not related to St. James. Unusually, the first performance of this can be dated accurately to 7 April 1431 as it was written for a particular ritual which took place in the first year of a Pope’s reign and then every seven years.
Also included on the disc are the Gloria and Credo which use quotations from popular songs in their long Amens. And there is also Dufay’s extrovert Apostolo glorioso which concludes the disc in a fittingly brilliant manner.
Robert Hugill


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