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Voix du Ciel: Medieval Polyphony and Sacred Chants
Ensemble Gilles Binchois/Dominique Vellard
rec. Til-Châtel & Vézelay, dates not given
EVIDENCE CLASSICS EVCD065 [62:04 + 68.18]

Amazingly, the Ensemble Gilles Binchois is 40 years old, and has about 60 CDs to its credit. All along, Dominique Vellard has orchestrated their incredibly varied repertoire, and engineered their development and concert programming. This double album assembled from several reasonably recent CDs takes us from the 12th century in Spain and the Notre-Dame School through to Ockeghem and Heinrich Isaac via excerpts from a recent disc of the Barcelona and so-called Apt Masses. The performances are consistent, and instruments are used as the musicians feel appropriate in both sacred and secular repertoire.

It has been a contentious issue how instruments may have played a part in early medieval music. On the whole, English groups – the Binchois Consort, Gothic Voices and the Orlando Consort, to name but three – have preferred the a capella approach. Continental groups have favoured instrumental participation. They based their thinking on the fact that sections of songs from the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, often involved long, untexted melismas – they play those instrumentally. Using instruments in the Spanish music of Alfonso el Sabio seems to make sense, and manuscript illustrations seem to suggest the case. The bonus for us listeners is an added interest and added colour. But what about sacred music, and what do you think about purely instrumental motets?

The Notre Dame school pieces and the extract from Isaac’s Mass and Ockeghem’s Requiem are sung a capella but the Mass movements from the Barcelona and Apt manuscript pieces (they date from the time of the papal schism) liberally use string instruments: sometimes behind a solo voice sometimes behind a vocal ensemble. The pacing of the performances is considered, even leisurely. I often like that approach. If one knows the recording of the Barcelona Mass by the group Obsidenne on Opus 111 (OPS 30-130), one will hear in contrast a strongly paced and firmly directed rendition. Sometimes, however, as in the troped Agnus from the Barcelona Mass, Vellard’s reading seems to amble along without much sense of propulsion, and loses interest.

Not all of the music is old. The three pieces from the disc Cantica Sacra are by Dominic Vellard himself: Beatitudes for two female voices and two Requiem movements, one for men and one for women. The harmony is austere, close and often dissonant, but clearly there is an influence of the very earliest polyphony, say from the Notre Dame School with the slow harmonic motion but with ornamented top lines.

This double album offers a good opportunity to discover the best of this outstanding ensemble. The booklet comes with full texts in the original French and English. (The translations are fine, except that I do not care for ‘Tu nobis dona expectata bona’ as ‘give us the goods we are expecting’!) There is a general essay by Vellard about the ensemble and some of the music. Photographs in black and white and in colour show the group then and now. There is also a list of all of the performers involved in each of the featured discs.

Gary Higginson

CANTIGAS DE SANTA MARIAAlfonso el Sabio (1221-1284)
1.Maravillosos [5.49]
2. Nas mentes [1.52]
3. Eno nome de Maria ]5.12]
4. Sola fusti [2.21]
5. Salvatoris hodie [12.51]
6. Repons: et valde [7.39]
7. Mater regis angelorum [5.19]
8. Ut queant laxis [3.49]
9. Adoremus in aeternam [6.01]
CANTICA SACRA – settings by Dominic Vellard
10. Les Beatitudes [9.54]

CD 2
1.Requiem: Introit [5.58]
2. Requiem: Graduel [3.56]
MISSA VIRGO PRUDENTISSIMA – Heinrich Isaac (C.1450-1511)
3. Gloria [6.20]
4. Alleluia (plainchant) [1.42]
5. Beata Viscera [6.52]
FONS LUMINIS (Codex from the ‘Las Huelgas’ monastery-Burgos c.1300
6. Agnus Dei [3.29]
7. Jocundare plebs fidelis [4.35]
8. O Maria maris stella/ O Maria des cella/Veritatem [1.28]
9. O Maris Virgo davitica /O Maria dei cella/ Veritatem [1.36]
10. Benedicaus Domino [4.56]
11, Kyrie avec trope “Humano generi” [7.07]
12. Colla jugo/Bona condit [2.39]
13. Agnus dei (Barcelona) [3.25]
14. “Imperatrix/O Maria [2.11]
15. Ave Maris Stella [2.37]
16. Johannes OCKEGHEM (d.1497) Offertoire; Requiem [9.08]

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