Beneath The Northern Star - The Rise of English Polyphony 1270-1430
The Orlando Consort
rec. Parish Church of St. John, Loughton, Essex, September 2015
HYPERION CDA68132 [72.13]
Now you will probably say that this reviewer should get out more, but ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by the Old Hall manuscript, or more especially by the twenty-five composers represented in it and this was largely because it is the first body of English music to which composers’ names are attached.
The manuscript, which was probably used by a Royal household and chapel, was compiled around 1410-1425 and is in, as it were, two layers; the earlier one has such exotic names as Jervays or Gervaise, whose Gloria in the new cantilena style is recorded here for the first time, his only known work. Other composers found are W.Typp, J.Tyes, Swynford (any relation to the hapless Kathryn Swynford?) and the enigmatic Roy Henry who was probably King Henry V. The second layer of, in the main, less complex works include Thomas Damett and John Cooke. Lionel Power was also included in the earlier pieces. He was an extraordinarily eclectic composer associated with Canterbury. His early work (young man’s music in a way) is rhythmically complex as represented here by a Gloria and Credo and more typical of the style associated with the late 14th Century ‘ars subtilior’ composers. The Orlando Consort as you might expect smooth over the many awkward corners and make these pieces sound utterly natural, although Power’s experimentation often does not quite come off. Power’s later music (not represented here) is beautifully simple and this marks a distinctly different phase in medieval English music.
The very earliest pieces, all anonymous, are from far flung manuscripts,like Stella maris nuncuparis, which is a rondellus, found in a manuscript associated with Meaux Abbey in East Yorkshire, being a sort of canon popular in England Alleluia Christo jubiliemus shows how chant could be decorated with the earnest compound rhythms associated with the late 13th Century. The Kyrie Cuthberte prece comes from Durham and is oddly chromatic and difficult to tune. Ave mundi rosa is a conductus in the typical discant style of the early 14th Century. And then we come on to the early Old Hall pieces.
Now several of these have found their way very steadily onto CD over the years. The most significant was by the Hilliard Ensemble in 1991 (EMI 7 54111 2) with twenty-five pieces including Bittering’s isorthymic motet En Katerine Solennia also recorded here, that may have been written for the marriage of Henry V to Catherine de Valois in 1420. In 2011 the Binchois ensemble recorded six works on ‘Music for Henry V’ (Hyperion CDA67868) including the Gloria by Roy Henry. Gothic Voices, also on Hyperion, has recorded a number of Old Hall pieces scattered over their various CDs and in the 70’s on various discs by Pro Cantione Antiqua. I have wondered why there is not a complete recording of the manuscript, but perhaps it will come. The Hilliard’s disc is quite beautiful but they tend to tackle the less intricate pieces. The Orlandos, by recording the pieces by Alanus, Damett (another composer who later simplified his style) Excetre and Power have taken on some very difficult music and as I said, are utterly convincing.
In the same way that ‘Decorated’ or middle period Gothic architecture with its utterly ornate window tracery and sculpture made way for the simplicity of line and the greater brightness of ‘perpendicular’ Gothic, so the music of John Dunstaple seems so full of poised melodic, spiritually uplifting light, and this emerges in the last tracks of the CD, as in the calming effect of his Gloria with all the complex rhythmic interplay now ironed out, replacing the exciting and overtly elaborate music of say Power’s Credo. Dunstaple, it seems, was influential on his continental contemporaries especially, I often think on Dufay, and the term ‘Contenance Anglois’ applies to Dunstaple’s generation.
The Orlando Consort is very familiar with this repertoire and has recently recorded three discs of Machaut for Hyperion. They are to be trusted and are beautifully recorded but I found on many occasions Donald Greig’s vibrato, when holding the longer, tenor pitches in the supporting plainchant as in the wonderful motet by Alanus, both irritating and disconcerting. I find myself hoping that the Binchois ensemble will come back to the Old Hall manuscript because, for me, their sound is ideal.
The accompanying essay by Gareth Curtis goes through each piece in turn with helpful clarity. All texts are given and translated and there is a good photo of the singers.
1. ANON: Alleluia. Christo Jubilemus [3.07]
2. ANON: Stella maris nuncuparis [1.42]
3. ANON: Spiritus et alme/ Gaude virgo saliutata [1.37]
4. ANON: Ave mundi rosa [4.24]
5. ANON: Kyrie Cuthberte prece [4.26]
6.Johannes ALANUS (fl.c1390-1410) Sub Arcturo plebs/Fons citharizancium [4.49]
7. Thomas DAMETT (c.1389-1437) Salvatoris mater pia/O Georgi Deo care [4.51]
8. BYTTERING (fl.c1410-1425) En Katerina solennia/Virginalis concio [3.32]
9. Robert CHIRBURY (c.1380-1454) Agnus dei [2.06]
10. GHERVAYS (fl.c1400) Gloria [3.25]
11. John EXCETRE (fl.c.1410) Credo [7.25]
12. Lionel POWER (d.1445) Credo [7.22]
13 Gloria [4.22]
14. John DUNSTAPLE (c.1390-1453) Dies dignus/ Demon dolens/Iste confessor [5.17]
15. Gloria [3.43]
16. ANON: (Old Hall) Credo a 3 [6.30]
17. ANON: (Old Hall) Credo a 4 [3.37]