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The Feast of Fools
First Vespers [9:05]
Music from the Office [9:50]
The Drinking Bout in the Cathedral Porch [3:06]
Mass of the Asses, Drunkards and Gamblers [20:36]
Music from the Office [11:25]
Second Vespers – The Ceremony of the Baculus [12:18]
The Banquet [5:43]
Processional [1:56]
New London Consort/Philip Pickett
rec. Temple Church, London, February 1990
DECCA/L’OISEAU–LYRE 4780028 [74:50]

 

Experience Classicsonline


Reviewing this CD is something of a sentimental journey for me. My copy of the original, then brand-new release was bought for me in Tower Records on Piccadilly in London by a very dear friend and has been an anchor of my admittedly rather meagre medieval collection ever since.

L’Oiseau-Lyre was a bit like Decca’s answer to the Archiv label, full of interesting repertoire played on original or authentic instruments and rich with an aura of responsibly applied research. The original release had notes by Philip Pickett and listings of musical sources, plus the instruments used and their makers. I’m glad to see that the full vocal texts plus translations have been kept in, but while Andrew Stewart’s notes are well written and useful I can’t really see what was wrong with the original ones. The cover picture is now the more colourful but misplaced ‘Peasant Wedding Feast’ by Pieter Breughel, where the original had a more universally applicable illustration: Drunkenness from a fourteenth-century manuscript ‘Treatise on the Seven Vices’. It’s a kind of dumbing down in my view – not to any disastrous extent I admit, but scholars will have to look elsewhere if they want to know more about the deeper background to the music on this re-release.

The Feast of Fools was a real medieval event, held somewhere between Christmas and Epiphany and often on New Year’s Day, so you could say that parts of the tradition are alive today as a kind of secular remnant – fused with those from pagan times of course, before any Druids write in to complain. The idea of the feast was the inversion of status: the functions of the upper echelons of the church being taken by their inferiors such as the lower clergy, choirboys and the like. Using contemporary 13th century manuscripts which describe such events, Philip Pickett made a selection of the music which would have been used, or abused, during the kind of mock services and ceremonies which took place. Many of the pieces are performed straight, with wonderful renditions of classic pieces such as Perotin’s Salvatoris hodie. The ‘desecrated’ music on the disc includes the plainchant which becomes increasingly unruly during The Drinking Bout in the Cathedral Porch. This is still great fun, though now sounds mildly self-conscious and rather gentle. Almost as ‘shocking’ and equally raucous is the Kyrie asini or “Ass’s Kyrie” in which the parts of the mass would have ended with an imitation of a donkey’s braying, and culminating in the congregation braying in response to the final Ite missa est. There are some fun animal noises elsewhere in the Mass of the Asses, Drunkards and Gamblers, and plenty of other drunken singing, lively drumming and danceable tunes. The out of tune Verbum patris hodie from the second set of ‘Music from the Office’ is truly excruciating.

For those of you who are not so interested in the intricate formalities and formalised proceedings of medieval church services, this recording serves up some remarkable and entertaining insights by showing some of the anti-rituals which were used by the lower church classes to blow off steam. The instrumental and vocal performances are all filled with character, and are expertly high spirited and as spiritually entertaining as a papal tickle-stick. This disc was a top recommendation in 1992, and, as nothing has changed, makes a very welcome return.

Dominy Clements

       


 


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