First, my apologies for delay in reviewing this recording, which
Gary Higginson reviewed
as long ago as November, 2008. I erroneously asked for a review
copy of another Hyperion reissue which came out in the same month
and only now have I been able to put the omission right. As it
happens, I’m glad that I mistakenly asked for CDH55312, Bach Cantatas
54, 169 and 170, sung by James Bowman with the King’s Consort,
since I enjoyed hearing it – see my review
– rather more than Jens Laurson who, though he was not unappreciative,
thought this not the disc to convert those who dislike counter-tenors
– see JL’s review.
If possible, however, I’m even more pleased now to review the
Binchois Consort reissue.
I’m surprised to see this CD resurface so quickly,
especially in view of the very positive reviews which it elicited
at the time of its appearance and the fact that this was, and
remains, the only available recording of Busnois’s remarkable
Missa L’homme armé, a work which may have been the earliest
appropriation of the L’homme armé theme - Josquin, whose
two masses on this theme are the most famous, was a mere stripling
when it was composed. It was hugely influential and survives
in more sources than any other setting of its time.
Literary historians long decried the ‘long’ - and,
by implication, boring - fifteenth century, thereby ignoring
some very fine works. How could C.S. Lewis, with his enthusiasm
for the Courtly Love theme not enjoy James I’s Kingis Quair?.
There has never been a comparable prejudice among musical scholars
but the general musical public still seems reluctant to dip
its toe too far into these waters. This very inexpensive reissue
offers an ideal opportunity to do so and we must thank Hyperion
for that. No longer do we look only to Naxos for inexpensive good-quality recordings; in fact,
some dealers regularly offer the Helios series for slightly
less than Naxos.
Naxos have a very successful and rightly praised
account of one of Josquin des Pré’s L’homme armé masses,
the Missa sexti toni (8.553428, Oxford Camerata/Jeremy
Summerly) and Gimell offer even more highly desirable versions
of Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales and Missa
L’homme armé sexti toni, coupled with two other mass settings,
on CDGIM206 – The Tallis Scholars sing Josquin, a
2-for-1 offer which actually works out less expensive per disc
than either Naxos or Helios. I took the opportunity, while
working on this review and on Gimell’s latest Josquin recording,
to download the Gimell recording in CD-quality sound. Gimell
believe their new recording of the masses Malheur me bat
and Fortuna desperata (CDGIM042) to be probably their
best to date; I am inclined to concur, but with the proviso
that their earlier recording of the two L’homme armé
and other masses would be my first recommendation for anyone
seeking to build a collection of early renaissance music.
Hesitant readers need have no fear of the music
on this CD. If the music here is less distinctive than the
two Josquin settings, it is, if anything, even more approachable,
though some aspects of it may seem a little unfamiliar. The
painting which Hyperion have chosen for the cover, the Mass
of Saint Giles, offers a clue – everything about it is representational,
in the modern sense, of the high altar of the Abbey of S Denis,
c.1500, obeying the rules of perspective, except the precious
oriental carpet in the foreground. So much does the artist
want to represent the pattern of this in all its beauty that
he tilts the perspective to give us a more complete view.
The music of Busnois, Domarto and Pullois on this
recording dates from almost half a century earlier than the
painting but is comparable in the sense that if you are comfortable
with the better-known polyphony of the sixteenth century – say,
Tallis, Palestrina and Byrd – you will be almost as much at
home with the music on this CD, with the very occasional exception.
To my ear those exceptions are as beautiful in their own right
as the anonymous painter’s desire to show the right pattern
of the carpet.
In one important respect Busnois was ahead of the
painter – whereas the latter remains anonymous, even if he is,
as some have speculated, the sharp-eyed cleric holding back
the altar curtain, Busnois seems to have been a man with a strong
sense of his own personality. Burckhardt, who invented the
word and fashioned our modern concept of the renaissance, famously
held that medieval human beings thought of themselves only in
the context of their society and that the renaissance marked
the transition to a self-image. Modern scholarship would suggest
that Burckhardt overstated his case, but its general tenor is
still valid. Andrew Kirkman in his admirable notes is surely
right to suggest that Busnois had a strong sense of his own
personality and that ‘his voice seems to shout out most powerfully’.
I need hardly add that Josquin, though still a transitional
figure in some senses, was closer to our own time and, even
more than Busnois, what Peter Phillips calls a superstar.
I part company slightly from the notes when Kirkman
suggests that Petrus de Domarto’s Missa Spiritus almus
is significantly less individual and, to the modern ear, ‘a
tougher nut to crack’. I actually found it at least as approachable
and, while not as individual as the Busnois, well worth hearing,
as also is Pullois’s Flos de spina. These two were not
even names to me before I heard this CD – Domarto figures in
the textbooks solely as the object of criticism from the theoretical
writings of de Tinctoris – these recordings have whetted my
appetite to hear more of their music.
I can’t imagine better performances and the recording
and presentation are equally up to Hyperion’s usual high standards
– the latter in every respect the equal of the full-price original.
If you look on the Hyperion web page, you’ll find
an intriguing invitation, Please,
someone, buy me ...
I shall be even more surprised if I ever see this Binchois Consort
recording on the same list – if we were still awarding those stars,
I’d give this five, too. Otherwise, select your own words of
praise from my earlier eulogies of Helios reissues. If such a
wonderful series had been available when I was an impecunious
undergrad, I’d have been even more over the moon at the availability
of such treasures than I am now.
see also Review
by Gary Higginson