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Music for the King of Scots
Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV
Anonymous, Renaissance liturgical

Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento [1:30]
Dilexisti iustitiam [1:37]
Missa Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento [36:50]
Magnificat [12:17]
William CORNYSH (c.1465?-1502?)
Ave Maria, mater Dei [3:03]
The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman
rec. September 2019, Genesis 6 Studio York University, United Kingdom. DDD
Reviewed as downloaded with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk
Texts and translations included.
HYPERION CDA68333 [55:17]

Linlithgow lies just over 15 miles west of Edinburgh. It is the birthplace of King James V and Mary Queen of Scots and was a favourite palace of members of the Scottish Royal Family in the Early Modern period. Dating from at least the twelfth century, the town was several times destroyed, rebuilt and adapted for military, royal and civilian occupation. Only the ruins of the Palace itself now remain following its destruction by fire in 1746 after the English army’s suppression of the second Jacobite Rebellion.

Here is the ever-imaginative, meticulous and communicative Binchois Consort’s current contribution to the twin projects, ‘Space, place, sound and memory: Immersive experiences of the past’ and ‘Hearing historic Scotland’. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, these initiatives have made it possible to re-imagine how original performances in Linlithgow Chapel may very well have sounded.

This music, as almost certainly heard and enjoyed at the Courts of Mediaeval and Renaissance Scotland, is performed and recorded in as accurate a virtual physical context as possible. So the architecture, furnishings, interior décor, fabrics and textures have been reconstructed to arrive at what is thought to be a convincing acoustic environment. This has been electronically ‘mapped’ onto the Binchois Consort’s singing in the Genesis 6 Studio at York University’s Department of Electronic Engineering.

One is immediately struck by the intimacy of what, perhaps, we have come to romanticise as cold, harsh, gaunt stone musical (and living) spaces. Yet here is close, homely, gentler, softer singing. It allows (and surely must encourage) listeners of the twenty-first century at least to reconsider the more familiar, perhaps more approachable impact which must have been made on contemporary listeners by the music of fifteenth century anonymous composers – and by the spectacularly beautiful polyphony of William Cornysh The Elder – who was born around 1465 and lived just into the next century.

Such calm and controlled immediacy does indeed offer a fresh perspective on why this music was written, and how it was performed. Firstly, such an undemonstrative air to the accounts of this sacred music (largely otherwise unavailable on CD) invites us to remember the dedication, the determination - almost - of those contributing to the confessional life at the Stewart court.

The focused projection of individual lines adds to the whole because of their individual intricacies and delicacies – rather than because they (attempt to) amass a conglomerate of sound. This suits the Binchois Consort very well indeed. Their singing is unhurried, deliberative, reflective and sober. It never, though, lacks spontaneity or vividness.

Significantly, the characters and particularities of the counterpoint – especially in the upper voices (the Consort has two altos to the four tenors and a bass) – become more clearly audible than would perhaps be the case in a larger space. Again, this is likely to be what the Court at Linlithgow would have appreciated… draperies, tapestries, rugs, screens, fabric floor coverings, and thick, warm clothing must effectively have brought performer and listener closer.

By far the longest work on this collection is the anonymous mass, Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento: the ‘Catherine Wheel mass’. James IV had a particular fascination and connection with Saint Katherine, having visited the healing well in the nearby village of Liberton several times in the last decade of his life. This mass is unusually florid – and somewhat antiquated in feel – for the presumed date (c.1460) of its composition.

Members of the Binchois Consort sing with conviction and great sensitivity. The other emotion which we cannot help but notice is an apposite and restrained joy. Not ecstasy or rapture. But delight and celebration… listen to the end of the Agnus Dei [tr.7], for instance. The solo and ensemble singing at such moments projects the music, moves it forward with a confidence and unsaturated uplift that would surely have delighted the energetic and allegedly quite wise – and so probably reflective – James IV as he balanced the practical world with the distilled sacred one.

The responsory [tr.1] and introit [tr.2] to which Missa Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento is allied are the CD’s first works. They represent what Kirkman calls a ‘snapshot’ of possible liturgical progression at the court in honour of the saint. The restrained and richly reflective Magnificat [tr.8] is from the Carver Choirbook and provides a contrast to the intensity of the foregoing – as does the Ave Maria [tr.9] by William Cornysh (The ‘Elder’) which is sung here as after Compline.

The excellent booklet - well up to Hyperion’s usual high standards - covers the context, the place and importance of 15th and 16th century Linlithgow, the music, and how the two were approached in this project as the Palace was ‘reconstructed’ acoustically; we also learn how then the recordings were made. There are the full texts in Latin and English and background on Kirkman and the Consort.

This CD thus represents something of double-lasting interest: the achievement of performing in an acoustic as close to how it was heard five hundred years ago as technology now allows us. That turns out to be a very fitting and pleasing acoustic at that. It also presents music of the late Mediaeval period in Britain which is of undeniably great beauty – and sung with style, appropriate conviction and insight.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Gary Higginson

The Binchois Consort:
David Allsop (alto)
Tim Travers-Brown (alto)
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)
Nick Madden (tenor)
George Pooley (tenor)
Matthew Vine (tenor)
Jimmy Holliday (bass)



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