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Music for the King of Scots Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV Anonymous, Renaissance liturgical Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento
Missa Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento
William CORNYSH (c.1465?-1502?) Ave Maria, mater Dei
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.
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
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.