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Medieval music by Busnois, Domarto and Pullois -
reviewed by

'... profoundly moving.'

Busnois, Domarto and Pullois. © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The Binchois Consort's nine members sing two mid-late medieval Masses here and three motets from the same period. Chronologically, the earlier mass is the strikingly beautiful Missa Spiritus almus ('Mass of the Nourishing Spirit') by Petrus de Domarto and dates from about 1450.

Listen -- Domarto: Agnus dei
(track 13, 0:39-1:58) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

It contrasts with Antoine Busnois' circa 1460 Missa L'homme armé ('The Armed Man'), which, being fifty years later, is more complex.

The Binchois Consort consists of two male altos, four tenors and two basses with another alto for two of the motets. Their conductor is Andrew Kirkman whose booklet notes describe the composers' surroundings and musical methods.

The two masses each have a duration of about thirty minutes and each has the traditional six sections starting with the Kyrie and ending with the Agnus dei.

Listen -- Busnois: Kyrie
(track 1, 1:04-2:01) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The music of each Mass contradicts the other. The singers brilliantly master these distinctive differences and are equally adept in surges of forte or the near-infinity of piano. They sound effortless whether juggling on one syllable or bringing tenderness to prolonged vowels. As an ensemble, they listen to each other.

Both Domarto and Busnois did what many composers did in medieval France which was to feed their Masses on other people tunes. Domarto transplanted his Missa Spiritus almus from a Virgin Mary motet into his 1450s Mass. Ten years later, Busnois similarly took a Virgin Mary motet and grafted it into a new motet he was writing. But Busnois used the French popular tune L'homme armé in his 1460s Mass.

However, Busnois may have had an ulterior motive. Large swathes of Northern Europe were ruled by the Duke of Burgundy who not only had symbolic connections with the musical armed man, but was also Busnois' patron.

There were, of course, other composers, both before and after Busnois, who put the L'homme armé into their own music, notably, for example, Dufay, Obrecht, and Josquin, Palestrina, and, well into the 1600s, his co-patriot Carissimi whose own Armed Man proved to be the last of them all.

The CD's booklet gives glimpses of the medieval France in which the composers worked and, of their actual methods of composition. During the ten year gap between Petrus de Domarto's 1450s Mass and Busnois' of the 1460s, French music developed a more complex use of basic musical material.

The calm of Domarto's harmonies had become the restless sounds of counterpoint. As the music itself makes clear, Domarto used the older technique of distinct separation between upper and lower voices. The high voices exploited agility and speed while the deeper ones produced open intervals of thirds and sixths or fourths and fifths, with unsurpassed richness of sound. The effect of the basses rising from the depths of modal scales while the upper voices descend is profoundly moving.

Busnois and his contemporary Obrecht modelled their own Masses on Domarto's work. It is now thought that before composing his L'homme armé Mass, Busnois had written other Masses. But, it is in L'homme armé that upper and lower voices both sing counterpoint simultaneously.

It is, perhaps, not too fanciful to hear already something of the twentieth and twenty first centuries in Busnois' colliding music of the fifteenth century.

In his day, Busnois' fame included a considerable output of motets and songs. Two motets are included on this CD. Like the two Masses, these motets contrast with each other, demonstrating Busnois' skill in dealing not only with songs but also with the very different demands of sacred texts for the motets.

First on this disc comes the Anima mea liquefacta est ('My soul melted'). Busnois made this motet appropriately sombre by emphasis on the lower voices as well as the use of all the voices in what this review refers to as 'colliding music'. Today, scholarly opinion links the Anima mea style to the early 1400s and places it as an early Busnois work.

For the second motet, Busnois' usual energy has returned as he tackles the motet's nine verses, each beginning with the word Gaude ( 'rejoice'), except for the final verse, which is a sort of cadence which opens on Ora ('pray'). The motet's title, Gaude celestis domina ('Rejoice heavenly lady'), indicates a cheerful approach to the Virgin Mary. The CD booklet refers to 'the driving and often highly syncopated rhythms, energetic passages in tenths, and thrilling metrical and rhythmic shifts of gear ...' The consort duly emulates Busnois by taking deep breaths and jumping into the deep end, text, music and all.

'Ineffable' is an appropriate description of the CD's final minutes. In English translation, the motet opens with Romantic sounding verses:

A flower is born of a thorn
And the flower of flowers is made fecund
By dew sent from heaven.

The heavens give the dew, the clouds pour down rain,
The mountains give off drops, the hills flow,
Truth is revealed as a stream.

The sublime music Flos de spina was composed around 1450 by Jean Pullois, a close friend of Ockeghem when both were musicians in Antwerp.

Flos de spina owes much to the flowing style of Petrus de Domarto's Mass. But where Domarto's undulations occurred between distinctly heard upper and lower voices, in Pullois' motet, those same voices created rich, close harmony.

It may not be possible to define what the ineffable is in music but it can certainly be recognised. Flos de spina surpasses all the other music of this CD. Indeed, all the music of many other CDs.

Listen -- Jean Pullois: Flos de spina
(track 15, 0:00-1:25) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Copyright © 28 February 2009 George Balcombe, London UK







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