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"La contenance angloise"


rec: August 11 - 15, 2009, Seewen (CH), Kirche St. Germanus
Christophorus - CHR 77332 (© 2010) (73'46")

Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Ave regina caelorum; Te Deum; Johannes BRASSART (c1420-c1445): O flos fragrans; Regina caeli (arr Marc Lewon); John DUNSTABLE (c1390-1453): O rosa bella (arr anon); Puisque m'amour (arr Marc Lewon); Salve scema sanctitatis - Salve salus servulorum; Speciosa facta es; Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Alma redemptoris mater; Aurea luce; Ave regina ccaelorum; Flos florum; Kyrie; O tres piteulx - Omnes amici eius; Supremum est mortalibus; GALFRIDUS DE ANGLIA (fl c 1444): Che farò io; Conrad PAUMANN (c1410-1473): Annavasanna tertia; Fortune, alas (arr Masako Art); O rosa bella; Sanssoblier; plainchant: Ave Maria gratia plena; Ave regina caelorum; Beata viscera; Concupivit rex decorem; Gaudeamus omnes; Regina caeli; Salve regina; (?-1445): Ave regina caelorum; ROBERTUS DE ANGLIA (fl c 1454-c1474): El mal foco arda

Javier Robledano Cabrera, alto; Daniel Manhart, Juan Díaz de Corcuera, Nicolas Savoy, tenor; Ismael González Arróniz, bass; Elizabeth Rumsey, vielle; Marc Lewon, lute, vielle, quinterna; Masako Art, harp; Gregor Ehrsam, organ

La contenance angloise - the English manner - conquered the continent, and particularly France, in the 15th century. It was valued for its suave melody, fluid rhythms and systematic consonance, and influenced the style of composing of, for instance, Dufay. The English composer John Dunstable is generally considered the founder of this style. It was at the council of Konstanz in Germany (1414-1418) that composers from the continent became acquainted with this style as here musicians from all parts of Europe gathered together. The term "contenance angloise" originates from the French poet Martin Le Franc, who wrote that Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois "have a new method of making fresh harmony (...) and have adopted the English countenance and followed Dunstable (...)".

Of the composers represented on this disc Dufay and Dunstable are well-known names. Gilles Binchois, probably born in Mons in Flanders, is lesser-known, although he is considered one of the three main composers from the first half of the 15th century, alongside Dufay and Dunstable. The fact that his compositions were often quoted and arranged shows that he was held in high esteem. Johannes Ockeghem wrote a déploration at the occasion of his death. Johannes Brassart was also from Flanders. For some years he worked as a singer in the papal choir in Rome, and later he was at the service of the emperors Sigismund, Albrecht II and Friedrich III.

Leonel Power, and Galfridus and Robertus de Anglia were all from England. Leonel Power was an older contemporary of Dunstable and deveoped in his compositions in the same direction as Dunstable. Of the latter two very little is known; both have left two songs. One of each is included in the programme which are both performed here instrumentally.

Lastly this disc contains a number of intabulations, transcriptions of vocal pieces for instruments. Conrad Paumann was the most celebrated organist of his time and intabulated vocal music for his own instrument. His intabulations on this disc are from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, one of the main sources of such transcriptions. Although these were intended for the organ, there is no objection to playing them with other instruments.

There are several issues which need to be raised in regard to this recording. First of all, the programming is more or less torn between two ideas. On the one hand it wants to show the influence of English music on the continent, on the other hand it sheds light on the emergence of the Marian cult since the early 15th century. This explains the inclusion of no less than seven pieces of plainchant which have no relation to the main subject of this disc. And as many polyphonic pieces are performed instrumentally or in instrumental transcriptions there are not that many items left which are sung and show the influence of the 'English manner'.

And that leads to the second issue: the use of instruments. There is documentary evidence that instruments were used in performances of sacred music in Dufay's time. But how often, when and where - that is hard to say. It is known that in some churches the use of instruments was strictly forbidden. And therefore the participation of instruments in almost every vocal piece is rather questionable. Particularly unsatisfying is the change in scoring within a piece, for instance in Dufay's Supremum est mortalibus. The instrumental performance of vocal pieces - other than transcriptions which are preserved in manuscripts - is also debatable. The reason is not that this practice is unhistorical - the transcriptions prove the opposite - but because instrumental performances are far less suitable to demonstrate the features of the contenance angloise.

It has to be said, though, that the instrumental performances are coming off best. The players are excellent, and the use of a gothic harp, with its characteristic resonance, creates a very authentic atmosphere. I am less impressed by the vocal performances. There is nothing wrong with the singers, but there is too little ensemble, in particular if one listens with a headphone. I also find the upper voice often too dominating. And that is exactly the voice I have most problems with, mainly because his legato is less than perfect. I am missing the fluency the music of this era requires. I compared the performance of Salva scema sanctitatis with the recording by the Orlando Consort, and here the upper voice is sung with true legato. The lower voices are better in this regard, as far as I was able to hear them.

The last issue is the pronunciation: I can't see any justification for a consistent use of an Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts. I don't know - and perhaps it is not known anyway - where the various pieces on this disc have been performed. But the title of this disc says "English Style in 15th century Burgundy" - and it is implausible to assume that in that region Latin has been pronounced as it was in, for instance, Rome. One would think that enough is known about regional differences in pronunciation - and even styles of singing - to prevent the uniform treatment of the repertoire of the renaissance.

The booklet contains all lyrics with translations in English, German and French. But the programme notes are very brief, matters of interpretation are not discussed at all, and the tracklist doesn't give any information about which performers are participating. And on top of that the documentation is poor: it isn't quite clear, for instance, what exactly is original and what has been arranged and by whom.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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