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Firminus CARON (c1440 - after 1480): "Twilight of the Middle Ages"

Huelgas Ensemble
Dir: Paul Van Nevel

rec: July 9 -10, 2015, Tourinnes-la-Grosse (B), Eglise St. Martin
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875143472 (© 2015) (54'39")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Accueilly m'a la belle au gent atour a 3, chanson; Corps contre corps sans penser convoitise/Ramboure luy rataquon a 4, chanson; Helas que pourra devenir a 3 (a 4), chanson; Le despourveu infortuné a 3, chanson; Missa Accueilly m'a la belle a 4 (Agnus Dei); Missa Clemens et benigna a 4 (Sanctus); Missa Jhesus autem transiens a 4 (Gloria); Missa L'homme armé a 4 (Kyrie); Missa Sanguis Sanctorum a 4 (Credo)

Sabine Lutzenberger, Axelle Bernage, Witte Maria Weber, soprano; Bernd Oliver Fröhlich, Matthew Vine, Achim Schulz, Olivier Coiffet, Tom Phillips, tenor; Frederik Sjollema, baritone; Tim Scott Whiteley, Guillaume Olry, bass

The Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Tinctoris (c1435-1511) was one of the most influential theorists of his time. He knew and highly appreciated Firminus Caron, counting him, alongside Ockeghem, Busnoys and Régis, among "the most outstanding of all composers I have heard". There is more evidence of his reputation in that he is mentioned in the text of Loyset Compère's motet Omnium bonorum plenum, alongside Guillaume Dufay and other masters of the time. Today he is almost forgotten, a fate he shares with other composers of the renaissance period who were highly appreciated in their own time.

One of his masses has been preserved in the choir-books of Cambrai Cathedral. There is documentary evidence that around 1459 he was maître d'école in Amiens. He was best known for his chansons; four of them are included in the so-called Loire Chansonnier. His other chansons have come down to us in Italian sources. As far as we know Caron never stayed in Italy but French chansons were very popular there. This is a matter of good fortune as a part of his oeuvre has probably fallen victim to the French Revolution.

In 2012 the label fra bernardo released a set of three discs with Caron's five masses and seven of his chansons, performed by The Sound and the Fury. The Huelgas Ensemble presents a cross-section of Caron's oeuvre, including one section from each one of his masses and four chansons, two of which were not included in the fra bernardo set (Corps contre corps and Hélas que pourra devenir mon cueur).

The masses also only survive in Italian sources. They all belong among the genre of the parody mass meaning that motifs from pre-existing music, either sacred or secular, are incorporated. The programme opens with the Kyrie from the Missa L'homme armé, based upon one of the most popular (anonymous) chansons of the time, which was often used by composers as cantus firmus of a mass setting. Caron mostly confines himself to the second half of the melody. The Missa Jhesus autem transiens takes its cantus firmus from an antiphon of Vespers. It is one of three masses based on plainchant; the others are the Missa Clemens et benigna - the origin of whose cantus firmus has not been identified - and the Missa Sanguis sanctorum whose title refers to an antiphon for several martyrs. From the latter's Credo several sections are missing; the liner-notes don't mention this issue and therefore I don't know how this problem has been solved. The Missa Accueilly m'a la belle is based on Caron's own chanson which is also included here.

With the exception of Corps contre corps the chansons are for three voices; "where a fourth voice appears in the later sources it is demonstrably added", according to David Fallows in New Grove. Accueilly m'a la belle and Hélas que pourra devenir mon cueur have the form of a rondeau. The latter was one of the most popular rondeaux from the second half of the 15th century and Tinctoris quoted the tenor and contratenor parts in his treatise Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477). Corps contre corps is a chanson with three different texts; two of them are utterly disgusting which should have been reason enough not to include this piece.

In these performances Paul Van Nevel takes some liberties which raise questions. I have to rely here on the German translation of his Dutch programme notes as the English translation is a little inaccurate. The beginning of the refrain of Hélas que pourra devenir mon cueur is sung in two parts - a version which never existed, as Van Nevel admits, but makes this chanson's basic structure clearly audible. Later a third part is added as well as a fourth voice from a later source - remember here what David Fallows writes as quoted above. Le despourveu infortuné is performed in three different versions from various sources. I find this approach rather problematic: this work will never have been performed in the composer's time in different versions. The playing time of this disc is such that there was plenty of space to perform an entire piece in different versions, if that was considered appropriate. The chansons are rightly performed with one voice per part, except Corps contre corps where the whole ensemble seems to be involved.

That said, I wholeheartedly welcome this disc. I had considerable problems with the recording of The Sound and the Fury. The performances by the Huelgas Ensemble are much better. There is a more satisfying balance between the voice groups, the blending of the voices is far superior, the legato is immaculate and there are no odd dynamic accents as I noted in the performances of The Sound and the Fury. When I reviewed their recording I felt that there was room for an alternative interpretation. That is exactly what Paul Van Nevel and his singers offer here, even though the masses are fragmentary.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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