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Firminus CARON (c1440 - c1475): "Masses & Chansons"

The Sound and the Fury

rec: May - Sept 2011 (live), Mauerbach, Kartause Mauerbach (Kirche)
fra bernardo - fb 1207302 (3 CDs) (© 2012) (3.10'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Accueilly m'a la belle a 3a; Cuidez vous a 3; Du tout ainsy a 3; Hélas m'amour a 3; Le despourveu infortuné a 3; Missa Accueilly m'a la belle a 4; Missa Clemens et benigna a 4; Missa Jesus autem a 4; Missa L'homme armé a 4; Missa Sanguis sanctorum a 4; Mort ou mercy a 3; S'il est ainsy a 3

David Erler, alto; John Potter, Christian Wegmann, tenor; Colin Mason, Michael Mantaj, bass; with: Sven Schwannberger, lutea

The ensemble The Sound and the Fury focuses on lesser-known repertoire and more or less 'forgotten' composers of the renaissance. In 2009 the Austrian radio ORF released on its own label a disc which the ensemble had devoted to Firminus Caron. It was presented as the first disc which suggested more recordings to come. In the meantime Jaap van Benthem, a scholar of renaissance polyphony, revised his editions of the works of Caron, and that was the reason that The Sound and the Fury decided to record the two masses of Volume 1 once again. They are part of a set of three discs which include Caron's five masses which have come down to us and seven of his chansons. The work-list in New Grove shows that Caron composed a large number of chansons; there is no mention of other sacred works, like motets or settings of liturgical texts, such as the Magnificat.

Firminus Caron is an example of a composer who is almost completely ignored in modern times, but was quite famous in his own time. Johannes Tinctoris (c1435-1511), one of the most important theorists of the renaissance, named him alongside Ockeghem, Busnoys and Régis as "the most outstanding of all composers I have heard". We don't know when he was born or where; he could have been from Amiens. We also know nothing about his musical education; according to Tinctoris he was "poorly educated".

His masses all belong to the category of the parody mass, meaning that they are based on pre-existing material. The Missa Accueilly m'a la belle is based on his own chanson which in this recording precedes the mass and can again be heard at the third disc, whose second half is devoted to the chansons. The Missa L'homme armé is one of the many which were based on the chanson of that title, one of the most popular of the renaissance. The other three masses have a cantus firmus which is based on plainchant.

One notable aspect of Caron's music is that most of it has been preserved in Italian sources. In the case of the masses this has some consequences for the form in which they have been handed down. In several masses one or more lines of the Credo have been omitted. "Whilst this procedure was fairly common in western Europe, in Italy missing sections were sometimes added, resulting in an alternative, at times very unsatisfactory text underlay by the arranger or copyist; an aspect which is not always taken into consideration in modern editions today. Where the source appears problematic in this regard, the choice of text is adapted to the compositional structure in the version recorded here". This somewhat cryptic phrasing means in practice that the parts which are not by Caron himself have been omitted.

The Missa Sanguis sanctorum causes a specific problem: the oldest source omits the Agnus Dei. During the preparation of the performance it turned out that the music set to the Kyrie doesn't particularly fit to the text but was more appropriate for the Agnus Dei. It was decided to use that music for the Agnus Dei and perform the Kyrie in plainchant.

Most of Caron's chansons have also been found in Italian sources. This has led to the speculation that he has worked in Italy, but there is no evidence of that. It seems more plausible that the presence of his music in Italian sources bears witness to the popularity of French music in Italy in his time. That is a matter of good fortune, because hardly any of Caron's output has survived in French sources. That is largely due to the destruction of ecclesiastical property during the French revolution. The chansons are all but one for three voices. Many are written in the then modern duple time. He is also one of the first to write a real bass part.

I have not only reviewed the first disc which The Sound and the Fury devoted to Caron, but also some of their other recordings. I have been generally quite critical about their performances. This production hasn't given me many reasons to fundamentally change my verdict. There are several aspects which lead to my rather critical assessment.

The ensemble's performances are always recorded live at the same venue. That is probably driven by financial considerations. Since I have never heard any studio recordings by this ensemble I obviously can't prove that their performances would be different under more ideal circumstances, but I feel that live recordings work against them. Moreover, the Kartause Mauerbach seems not to be the ideal venue for this repertoire. The acoustic is a little too dry; the sacred music needs more space and reverberation. However, its positive effect would be nullified if the miking would be as close as is the case here. I really don't understand this. Its effect is that there is too much focus on the individual voices. The single lines are clearly audible but that goes at the cost of the ensemble. The fact that the blending of the voices is less than ideal could well be another side-effect of the close miking.

It also reveals some weaknesses. The intonation is sometimes a little suspect, and some voices seem to have trouble with the tessitura of their part. It has to be said that Caron doesn't make life very easy for interpreters as some parts have a wide range and now and then include large leaps. Especially some high notes in the parts of the tenors and basses don't sound very comfortable. David Erler has no problems with his part.

I also wonder about the ensemble's approach to this repertoire. It seems that every singer has his own as there is some difference in their style of singing. David Erler opts for a continuous legato, and he does so admirably. There is also little dynamic difference between the notes. John Potter's singing is quite different. He tends to chop up his lines, with an incessant dynamic difference between individual notes. He also seems to sing at half power. This results in a lack of balance within the ensemble. The alto and the basses have considerable presence, whereas the middle parts don't come off that well.

It would certainly be incorrect to say that this repertoire lacks expression; that goes in particular for the chansons. However, its expression is different from that in music of the late 16th century, let alone the baroque era. Emphasizing words through dynamic accentuation or colouring of the voice is not appropriate here. Exactly that I noted, for instance in Le despourvu infortuné ("de dueil" - by mourning). I also think that sometimes the intonations in the masses are a little 'pathetic'; they should have been sung in a more 'neutral' manner.

I fully appreciate the efforts of The Sound and the Fury putting Caron's music on the map. Until they took care of his output he was hardly noticed. Therefore these recordings are very welcome and should encourage to delve into his oeuvre. The chansons recorded here only represent a small part of what he has written in this genre. Ensembles specializing in renaissance chanson repertoire should look into his output. As I expressed my disappointment about various aspects of the performances of the masses, there is certainly room for alternative readings, especially as they are available in new editions.

The first disc includes two pdf files with the lyrics and the complete scores. It is unfortunate that neither the disc nor the booklet include a detailed track-list with the timings of every piece. The backside of the case only gives a rough overview of the three discs, but the fact that the Missa Accueilly m'a la belle is preceded by the chanson on which it is based, is not mentioned.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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