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Having said this, it must be admitted that the performance of Ars Nova material does not always reveal its underlying sense and clarity, let alone suggest that, far from being a kind of mathematical exercise, this is music of a peculiarly, but genuinely emotional cast.

The performers on this disc are the ensemble Venance Fortunat, long established and well-known in France, but much less so in Britain. At times they are augmented by a larger group of young singers, La Schola from the University of Tours. In whatever combination, the sound they make is quite breath-taking. French singers are notoriously individualistic, as anyone who has conducted them en masse can testify, but when that individuality is somehow harnessed, rather than being subsumed, in an ensemble performance, the results are capable of transporting the listener to another dimension in a capella singing.

One of the small, but telling, indications of the quality of the singers, is their breath control. The arcing and interweaving lines, often of some rhythmic complexity, are delivered in a seemingly unbroken stream, sometimes for more than six minutes at a time. Most remarkable in this respect is the Credo 'bonbarde', the longest piece on the CD, whose alternating rhythms sweep first one way, then another, sustaining a musical line which, when it finally ends, insists that not only was this the inevitable conclusion, but that there was only one way of reaching it. However elaborate, everything feels entirely right; not only in its proper but also its natural place. This is the great paradox of Ars Nova: that a form so 'contrived', and even 'artificial', sounds, in the right hands entirely cohesive and coherent. It helps that our ears may be better tuned these days, or perhaps re-tuned, to those intervals which earlier centuries would have heard simply as dissonances, so that they no longer jar.

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Copyright © 6 November 2002 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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