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Antoine BUSNOIS (c. 1430-1492)
Missa L’homme armé [31.32]
Gaude celestas domina [6.40]
Anima mea liqufactor [5.42]
Petrus de DOMARTO (fl. 1450)
Missa Spiritus almus [28.06]
Jean PULLOIS (d. 1478)
Flos de spina [5.36]
The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman
rec. All Saints, Tooting, London, 19-21 June 2001
Experience Classicsonline

I bought this CD when it first came out in 2002. I felt as if I had arrived at the beginning of the story having several years previously started in the middle and already reached the end. Let me explain.
The first L’homme Armé masses I paid much heed to were those by Josquin on the Gimell label with the Tallis scholars (CDGIM 019). They were written somewhere between 1500 and 1520. As a choirboy I once sang once the version by Palestrina which was published in the 1590s. But it’s through over twenty other composers that the L’homme Armé masses began seriously to emerge. Recordings have been easily available of the masses by Ockeghem (Naxos 8.554297, Oxford Camerata), Tinctoris (CYP 3608, The Clerks Group), Pipelare (SK 68258, Huelgas Ensemble), Dufay (Naxos 8.553087, Oxford Camerata) and Robert Carver (ASV CDGAU 126, Capella Nova). I mention all of these discs just to show how popular it was to write a mass on this odd little melody and also how popular it has been to record them, no matter how obscure. Yet it appears, if Andrew Kirkham’s notes are correct that this version of Busnois may well be the earliest; indeed he may have written the original ‘Armed man’ melody. What is so striking in this mass is how clear the tune is within an often quite complex texture. Right at the start - bar 4 of the Kyrie, in fact - it makes a clear appearance in the tenor part. It is often heard at climactic points and is in addition so wonderfully written for the voices. Not surprisingly, as you listen to this piece, you will understand why Busnois was held in such high regard in his lifetime. If Wikipedia is right he died in Belgium suddenly whilst his music was in considerable circulation throughout Europe.
Even this mass is not the beginning of the story because, as Andrew Kirkman in his excellent booklet notes states, this mass did not come out of nowhere: “one of the more signal influences, was the other mass on this disc: the ‘Missa Spiritus almus’ by Petrus de Domarto”. He goes on to explain that the influences are Busnois’ “approach to metre and, particularly, cantus firmus lay out”. Kirkman goes on to explain further technical similarities. Whilst the Domarto Mass is a fine work it is less striking, especially at first. On the other hand, over the last six years I have found in it a great deal to admire.
The CD also has the motet ‘Gaude celestas domina’. According to Andrew Kirkman this has been attributed to Busnois on stylistic grounds by Rob Wegman who is the guru of the music of the low countries of the 15th Century. In his book 'Born for the Muses’ on p.64, Wegman makes it pretty clear that Busnois Mass probably dates from 1472-3. Yet he must have overlooked the fact there are L’homme Armé mass fragments which Wegman himself has dated from the 1460s or early 1470s (p.235). My feelings are anyway that this highly complex motet which is a virtuoso exercise both in composition and in execution is a much earlier piece. It is a hymn in praise of the Virgin “Rejoice that you surpass all saints/You rule on this dais/…. As the powerful mother of God”. Its climax is a marvel of counterpoint and the Binchois ensemble are on top form making the lines rhythmically clear and neatly overlapping the dynamics.
Gaude Celestas domina’ is in strong contrast to 'Anima mea liquefacta est’ with its melting, sensuous text from The Song of Songs. It is very expressive and, suitable for the words, has “pliable melodic lines and concludes with a driving syncopated passage” bringing the work to a joyous peroration.
Jean Pullois’s ‘Flos de spina procreatur’ may well have been first performed in Antwerp when Ockeghem - who apparently was a fine bass - worked there. Kirkman describes it as “ravishingly beautiful”. I don’t quite warm to the piece myself but it brings the CD to an ideal conclusion.
The Binchois Ensemble has produced seven discs for Hyperion of which this was, I think, the third. Let’s hope for more because they are outstanding and one of the best male vocal ensembles around. As a group they are prepared to tackle the greatest music of the early renaissance and make it live not as museum pieces but as an important and vibrant part of the modern musical environment. The music comes across as being as important as Mozart or Brahms or Schoenberg. Each piece lives for itself and each is displayed, in these wonderfully expressive and superbly prepared performances, as a total masterpiece.
Gary Higginson


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