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CD reviews

Guillaume DUFAY (c1397 - 1474): Sacred and secular music

[I] "Les messes à teneur" (The tenor masses)
Cut Circle
Dir: Jesse Rodin
rec: Jan & August 2014, Chestnut Hill, Mass., Church of the Redeemer
Musique en Wallonie - MEW 1577-1578 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (2.17'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Guillaume DUFAY: Ave regina celorum (III) a 4, motet; Missa Ave regina celorum a 4; Missa Ecce ancilla Domini/Beata es Maria a 4; Missa L'homme armé a 4; Missa Se la face ay pale a 4; Se la face ay pale a 3. ballade; plainchant: Ave regina celorum

Carolann Buff, Mary Gerbi, soprano; Lawrence Jones, Steven Soph, alto; Michael Barrett, Bradford Gleim, tenor; David McFerrin, Paul Max Tipton, bass

[II] "The Dufay Spectacle"
Gothic Voices
rec: March 10 - 13, 2016, Boxgrove (West Sussex), Boxgrove Priory
Linn Records - CKD 568 (© 2018) (67'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Portigaler (after Guillaume Dufay (attr), Or me veult bien Esperance mentir); Se la phase pale (after Guillaume Dufay, Se la face ay pale); Se le fatze ay pale (after Guillaume Dufay, Se la face ay pale); Guillaume DUFAY: Apostolo glorioso/Cum tua doctrina/Andreas, Christi famulus a 5, motet Ce jour de l'an a 3, rondeau; Ecclesie militantis/Sanctorum arbitrio/Bella canunt/Gabriel/Ecce nomen domini a 5, motet; Entre vous, gentils amoureux a 3, rondeau; Estrinez moy, je vous estrineray a 3, rondeau; Je me complains piteusement a 3, ballade; Je requier a tous amoureux a 3, rondeau; Je vous pri/Tant que mon argent/Ma tres douce amie a 4, chanson; Las, que feray? ne que je devenray? a 3, rondeau; Mon bien, m'amour a 3, rondeau; O sancte Sebastiane/O martyr Sebastiane/O quam mira/Gloria et honore a 4, motet; Puisque vous estez campieur a 3, rondeau; Quel fronte signorille a 3; Resvelliés vous et faites chiere lye a 3, ballade; Salve flos Tuscae gentis/Vos nunc Etruscae/Viri mendaces a 4, motet; Vasilissa, ergo gaude/Concupivit rex decorem a 4, motet; Vergene bella a 3, motet

Catherina King, mezzo-soprano; Steven Harrold, Julian Podger, tenor; Stephen Charlesworth, baritone
with: Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano; Jane Achtman, vihuela d'arco, fiddle; Keith McGowan, douçaine, shawm; Emily White, sackbut; Andrew Lawrence-King, bray harp, psaltery, regal, organ


Guillaume Dufay is generally considered one of the greatest composers of the renaissance period. He is well represented on disc, and especially the masses recorded by the American ensemble Cut Circle are available in several recordings. However, these four pieces, which all date from the last about 20 years of the composer's life, have never been brought together in one production. To do so makes much sense. Although they don't constitute a cycle, they have at least one thing in common, as is expressed in the title of this disc. They are all based on pre-existing material which is used as cantus firmus in the tenor part. That said, each mass has its own characteristics, as pointed out by the ensemble's director, Jesse Rodin, in his extensive liner-notes.

The Missa Se la face ay pale is based on Josquin's four-part ballade. It is probably the first work from Dufay's pen I have ever heard, in the wonderful recording by the Early Music Consort of London, directed by David Munrow. The ballade opens the first disc, and is followed by the mass. Dufay uses the tenor of his chanson as cantus firmus, and as the upper part is mostly better memorized than the lower ones, this means that the cantus firmus is not that easily notable. That is also due to the fact that the tenor does not remain unaltered: most of the time it is augmented and sung at half speed. The moment where the ballade is most easily recognizable is at its end. "Like a game of leapfrog, the singers rapidly overtake one another, building steadily toward the final cadence." This is reworked five timed during the mass, at the end of each section.

The second mass is based on a song by an unknown composer, L'homme armé. Dufay was probably the first to use it as cantus firmus of a mass cycle; many other such parody masses would follow. The original song is monophonic, and therefore the material is much easier to recognize. In Dufay's mass it comes most clearly out in the Agnus Dei. One of the features of this mass is its use of harmony. "[While] all the voices are rooted in G, the cantus lacks the B-flat signature carried by the three lower voices. Thus cantus B-naturals regularly brush up against B-flats elsewhere". In the Credo Dufay experiments with meter: in one passage the various parts are notated in different meters.

The second disc includes two masses based on liturgical chants. The Missa Ecce ancilla Domini/Beata es Maria is based on two offertories for the office of the Virgin. According to Rodin the mass may have been intended for a Marian celebration during Eastertime. The main feature of this mass is the frequency of two-part writing. Such passages are a hallmark of the style of the Franco-Flemish school, but here they appear more frequenly than anywhere else and often at places where one won't expect them, such as in the middle of the first Kyrie. At several moments Dufay returns to music of previous sections of his mass: the Credo begins like the Gloria, the Sanctus opens with the music of the Kyrie and in the Agnus Dei Dufay uses the material of Kyrie I.

The treatment of the cantus firmus is notable here as well as in the last mass. "The sources for the Missa Ecce ancilla Domini suggest that the tenor should sing the cantus-firmus texts as opposed to the words of the Mass Ordinary. We have opted for this solution both here and in the other mass on Disc 2, where both lower voices sing the text of the parent chant." The fourth mass is based on Dufay's own motet Ave regina celorum. which is also included here, preceded by the plainchant version. The connection between motet and mass comes clearly to the fore in the Agnus Dei. In his motet Dufay inserted a new text: "Miserere tui labentis Du Fay" (Have mercy on your labouring Dufay) and "Miserere supplicanti Du Fay" (Have mercy on your pleading Dufay). The music Dufay has set to this text returns in the Agnus Dei II, now with the text "Miserere nobis". "This textual transformation has much to tell us about what it meant to be a believing Christian in the late middle ages: Du Fay's personal plea has been subsumed into the collective." In this mass we also find some unusual keys, and a passage of text expression which is rather uncommon in sacred music of Dufay's time.

Some time ago I reviewed another disc of Cut Circle ("Music at the Sistine Chapel around 1490") which greatly impressed me. Again I am happy with what is on offer here. The ensemble comprises excellent voices, which blend perfectly and whose individual qualities come to the fore in the two-part episodes. The liner-notes are detailed, and Rodin even gives the timings of the passages he refers to. The problem is that these are passing so quickly that one hardly notices them, and from other reviews, which compare these recordings with rival performances, I understand that Rodin's tempi are rather fast. Maybe a little slower tempi would have allowed for a more thorough experience of notable passages. That said, these masses are not meant to be analysed by the listener, but for liturgical use. One could argue that it would have been preferable if they had been recorded as part of a liturgical framework. The recording is fine, but I would prefer a less direct miking and a bit more reverberation. They are treated here as chamber music rather than as church music.

Even so, this is a wonderful set, and lovers of renaissance polyphony will greatly enjoy these performances of four masterpieces from the pen of Guillaume Dufay.

The second production under review here sheds light on a different side of Dufay's oeuvre and activities. He was a much sought-after composer and stayed at several places, such as Bologna, Rome and Savoy. The versatility of his oeuvre reflects the importance of music in every part of life, from the church to the privacy of the homes of the aristocracy. The ensemble Gothic Voices has recorded a programme which pays attention to that versatility, appropriately called 'The Dufay Spectacle'. The character of the programme is described in the booklet. "It is New Year's Day, and a special wedding is happening. In a magnificent banqueting hall the noble guests are gathering and exchanging courtesies, musicians are taking their places, keen to enhance the occasion with their fine voices and newly invented instruments. Guest of honour: France's greatest proto-Renaissance composer: Guillaume Dufay. In this spectacle of his musical versatility this sequence of chansons and motets stages an imaginary scene, set maybe somewhere in northern Italy, maybe sometime in the 1470s, at the end of his life". The lack of a precise time and place allows for a variery of pieces, which are not necessarily connected.

In accordance with the description, the starting point is the song for New Year's Day, Ce jour de l'an: "This new year's day I would like to rejoice, to sing, to dance, and show a happy face, so to maintain the joyful appearance that all lovers are required to maintain". It is the thread in this programme. It opens the procedings in a short monophonic version, and also two of the sections of the programme in improvisations by members of the ensemble. The full three-part version closes the programme.

The first section is called "The Welcome". After the New Year's Day song we hear Vasilissa, ergo gaude/Concupivit rex decorum, written in honour of Cleofe Malatesta, bride of Theodore Palaiologos, before their wedding in 1421. As in many pieces on this disc the various voices have their own text. "Enter, gentle lovers", is the opening line of the three-part chanson Entre vous, gentils amoureux.

The second section is called A Reflection, with various chansons about love, in most cases the dark sides of it, such as Je me complains piteusement: "I complain pityfully to myself, all alone, more than to anyone, of the difficulty, pain and torment, which I suffer more than I say".

The third section is entitled "Solemn Celebration", and here we hear also some sacred pieces. It opens with Jane Achtman, improvising over a single line from Ce jour de l'an, and then we hear the four-part motet O Sancte Sebastiane, in which every voice (cantus I and II, contratenor and tenor) has its own text. It is followed by two instrumental arrangements of Dufay's ballade - included in Cut Circle's recording - Se la face ay pale, both taken from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch. And then we hear another famous piece, Vergene bella, in honour of the Virgin Mary, on a text by Petrarch. A chanson and further motets complete this section.

The last episode is called "Playful Celebration", and this is mostly devoted to chansons about love, this time of a more happy nature.

This disc is a nice survey of Dufay's mastery of the genre's of his time. The instrumental arrrangements attest to the popularity of his music, and his reputation as a composer. The performers have done us a favour by not confining themselves to Dufay's best-known pieces, although it needs to be said that Dufay's secular music does not that often appear on disc and his sacred music seems to be much better known. The mixture of voices and instruments is convincing; the instruments used here were common at the time, and their contributions are never exaggerated. The various improvisations refer to a then wide-spread practice. The singing and playing are fine, and with this disc Gothic Voices has given us a little over an hour of high-level musical entertainment.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Cut Circle
Gothic Voices

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