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Antoine Busnois (c.1430-1492)
Missa L’homme armé (1460s ?) [31:32]
Anima mea liquefacta est  [5:42] 
Petrus de Domarto (fl.1450-1450)
Missa Spiritus almus
(c.1450) [28:08]

Antoine Busnois
Gaude celestis domina

Jean Pullois (?-1478)
Flos de spina* [5:36] 

Robin Tyson (counter-tenor)*; The Binchois Consort/Andrew Kirkman
rec. All Saints, Tooting, London, 19-21 June 2001.  DDD.
Booklet with texts and translations included

Experience Classicsonline

First, my apologies for delay in reviewing this recording, which Gary Higginson reviewed as long ago as November, 2008.   I erroneously asked for a review copy of another Hyperion reissue which came out in the same month and only now have I been able to put the omission right.  As it happens, I’m glad that I mistakenly asked for CDH55312, Bach Cantatas 54, 169 and 170, sung by James Bowman with the King’s Consort, since I enjoyed hearing it – see my review – rather more than Jens Laurson who, though he was not unappreciative, thought this not the disc to convert those who dislike counter-tenors – see JL’s review.  If possible, however, I’m even more pleased now to review the Binchois Consort reissue.

I’m surprised to see this CD resurface so quickly, especially in view of the very positive reviews which it elicited at the time of its appearance and the fact that this was, and remains, the only available recording of Busnois’s remarkable Missa L’homme armé, a work which may have been the earliest appropriation of the L’homme armé theme - Josquin, whose two masses on this theme are the most famous, was a mere stripling when it was composed.  It was hugely influential and survives in more sources than any other setting of its time. 

Literary historians long decried the ‘long’ - and, by implication, boring - fifteenth century, thereby ignoring some very fine works.  How could C.S. Lewis, with his enthusiasm for the Courtly Love theme not enjoy James I’s Kingis Quair?.  There has never been a comparable prejudice among musical scholars but the general musical public still seems reluctant to dip its toe too far into these waters.  This very inexpensive reissue offers an ideal opportunity to do so and we must thank Hyperion for that.  No longer do we look only to Naxos for inexpensive good-quality recordings; in fact, some dealers regularly offer the Helios series for slightly less than Naxos. 

Naxos have a very successful and rightly praised account of one of Josquin des Pré’s L’homme armé  masses, the Missa sexti toni (8.553428, Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly) and Gimell offer even more highly desirable versions of Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales and Missa L’homme armé sexti toni, coupled with two other mass settings, on CDGIM206 – The Tallis Scholars sing Josquin, a 2-for-1 offer which actually works out less expensive per disc than either Naxos or Helios.  I took the opportunity, while working on this review and on Gimell’s latest Josquin recording, to download the Gimell recording in CD-quality sound.  Gimell believe their new recording of the masses Malheur me bat and Fortuna desperata (CDGIM042) to be probably their best to date; I am inclined to concur, but with the proviso that their earlier recording of the two L’homme armé and other masses would be my first recommendation for anyone seeking to build a collection of early renaissance music. 

Hesitant readers need have no fear of the music on this CD.  If the music here is less distinctive than the two Josquin settings, it is, if anything, even more approachable, though some aspects of it may seem a little unfamiliar.  The painting which Hyperion have chosen for the cover, the Mass of Saint Giles, offers a clue – everything about it is representational, in the modern sense, of the high altar of the Abbey of S Denis, c.1500, obeying the rules of perspective, except the precious oriental carpet in the foreground.  So much does the artist want to represent the pattern of this in all its beauty that he tilts the perspective to give us a more complete view. 

The music of Busnois, Domarto and Pullois on this recording dates from almost half a century earlier than the painting but is comparable in the sense that if you are comfortable with the better-known polyphony of the sixteenth century – say, Tallis, Palestrina and Byrd – you will be almost as much at home with the music on this CD, with the very occasional exception.  To my ear those exceptions are as beautiful in their own right as the anonymous painter’s desire to show the right pattern of the carpet. 

In one important respect Busnois was ahead of the painter – whereas the latter remains anonymous, even if he is, as some have speculated, the sharp-eyed cleric holding back the altar curtain, Busnois seems to have been a man with a strong sense of his own personality.  Burckhardt, who invented the word and fashioned our modern concept of the renaissance, famously held that medieval human beings thought of themselves only in the context of their society and that the renaissance marked the transition to a self-image.  Modern scholarship would suggest that Burckhardt overstated his case, but its general tenor is still valid.  Andrew Kirkman in his admirable notes is surely right to suggest that Busnois had a strong sense of his own personality and that ‘his voice seems to shout out most powerfully’.  I need hardly add that Josquin, though still a transitional figure in some senses, was closer to our own time and, even more than Busnois, what Peter Phillips calls a superstar. 

I part company slightly from the notes when Kirkman suggests that Petrus de Domarto’s Missa Spiritus almus is significantly less individual and, to the modern ear, ‘a tougher nut to crack’.  I actually found it at least as approachable and, while not as individual as the Busnois, well worth hearing, as also is Pullois’s Flos de spina.  These two were not even names to me before I heard this CD – Domarto figures in the textbooks solely as the object of criticism from the theoretical writings of de Tinctoris – these recordings have whetted my appetite to hear more of their music. 

I can’t imagine better performances and the recording and presentation are equally up to Hyperion’s usual high standards – the latter in every respect the equal of the full-price original. 

If you look on the Hyperion web page, you’ll find an intriguing invitation, Please, someone, buy me ...   Clicking on the link takes you to an offer, half price or less, of their current poorest-selling CDs.  As I write, Volume 11 of the complete Purcell Anthems is offered for £4.90 and the Richard Strauss and Verdi String Quartets for £2.49; a few days ago I was amazed to find The Sixteen’s recording of Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea on offer there for £2.49.  All these are well worth their usual price; they won’t be on offer when you read this – the list changes regularly – but something equally attractive probably will.  Give it a try. 

I was surprised to find the Taverner recording on the unloved list – I do urge you to buy it even at its regular, inexpensive price (CDH55051, a 5-star recording when we awarded stars – see Gerald Fenech’s review).  I shall be even more surprised if I ever see this Binchois Consort recording on the same list – if we were still awarding those stars, I’d give this five, too.  Otherwise, select your own words of praise from my earlier eulogies of Helios reissues.  If such a wonderful series had been available when I was an impecunious undergrad, I’d have been even more over the moon at the availability of such treasures than I am now.

Brian Wilson

see also Review by Gary Higginson


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