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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450 - 1517)
Ein Frölich Wesen
see end of review for track listing
Els Janssens-Vanmunster (chant); Michael Feyfar (chant)
Les Flamboyants/Michael Form
rec. 23-29 June 2010, Temple St. Joan, Mulhouse, France. DDD

Isaac seems to have written more mass cycles than any other composer of the Renaissance. He was esteemed as highly as any other of his contemporaries - by both musicians and patrons, actual and potential. Unhappily, his secular music has scarcely received the attention it undoubtedly deserves. Only an incomplete and out of date edition exists: that of Johannes Wolf (Vienna) from over a century ago.
Of the astonishingly small number - fewer than half a dozen! - of CDs devoted exclusively to Isaac only a couple contain any of his secular material. Now along comes this pleasing, well-conceived and nicely-executed newcomer from the dozen-strong German group, Les Flamboyants, which was founded by director and flautist Michael Form in 1997. It contains two dozen or so short secular pieces by Isaac supplemented by a handful of complementary works by contemporaries, the most notable being Le serviteur hault guerdonne by Dufay - also one of the CD's longest pieces.
Indeed, variation is a feature of the CD. Variation between sung and textless, between instrumental and vocal grouping/combination, between miniature and ensemble, and between reflective and more outgoing pieces. The collection also alternates between the six composers. Isaac's music has enough substance and interest not to need to be presented as a potpourri. The same is true of Busnoys and of the much less well known Jacques Barbireau and of Juan de Urrede. The listener comes away with a sense of roundness in Isaac's and the others' musical intentions. It seems as though Isaac could turn his hand to anything.
Perhaps to illustrate that competence, dexterity and flexibility, Form has chosen to place a sequence of ten compositions at the heart of this CD. This builds, subtly, miraculously, surreptitiously, almost, on a well known chanson melody. These numbers combine that melody with formulae and methods used in antiphonal responses and invocations to the Gregorian Litany of the Saints. The distribution is five-fold: the original, two tenors (primus, secundus), then two more freely composed accompanying vocal lines.
The achievement of Les Flamboyants is, among other things, to have produced musically pleasing, compelling and beautiful wholes which seem as effortless and convincing as they in fact represent tours de forces. There's nothing self-conscious or self-regarding here. However technically complex the writing, the music, voices and instrumental lines flow with a warmth and ease that make listening a delight. Yes, there is contrapuntal and textural substance and depth but in the end - as the composers would want - we enjoy the aural experience. Nor is the vital role, the clarity and incision of the text overlooked or underplayed. Each piece emerges as a fully-valid work in its own right. Each track, if you will, is a little gem.
The performances have such edge and control that you await the next as the present finishes. You feel, by the end of the hour or so's music, that you have had an insight into the composing practices of the late fifteenth century and become familiar with several its best known compositions. There’s also a sense of the richness of this unpretentious and winning music.
The performers, then, are fully in tune with their idiom, their delivery is unostentatious, clean and yet full of expression. They sing and play from 'inside' the music, not as advocates for it. Although a strong case could be made for advancing Isaac's cause until he's seen by a wider music-loving public as the major figure that he is. The tone, palettes, momentum, colour and indeed immediate literary and historical worlds that are recreated by these performers are compelling indeed. By the way, it's conjectured that Palle, palle [tr.1] refers to the battle cry of the Medici.
There's a perfect balance of declaratory confidence and gentleness, maybe at times gentility, in these performances. Les Flamboyants are specialists in the period, to be sure but the music is projected as worth listening to rather than offered as a sample of something. Enunciation of the texts is as clear as articulation of the various instrumental timbres and dynamics. The latter vary almost from item to item and certainly provide real and unflagging sonic and mental interest.
In place of gimmicks or self-conscious 'extras' Form and Les Flamboyants live up to the group's name: they're full of style and class but never let veneer obscure substance. This is music to be studied, enjoyed, marvelled at and, above all, to become familiar with. It's much more than technical model, curiosity, historical exemplum. It stands in its own right and Les Flamboyants explain just why.
The booklet is nicely informative; especially in providing each manuscript's source. That said, it is imperfectly proofed. It contains the texts of just eight of the works in the original with German translations. The acoustic is close, focused and conducive to careful listening. Though not too dry, the instruments and voices sound more immediate than deliberately staged for effect. Isaac is too important a composer, his music too special and beautiful, for almost any and every collection of performances thereof not to be seized on by lovers of early Renaissance music.
Mark Sealey  

Track listing
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450 - 1517)
Ein Frölich Wesen
Palle, palle [1:44]
Tart ara [2:13]
J'ay pris amours [3:49]
La Spagna [1:22]
Et je boi autant [0:54]
In meinem Sinn a 4 [1:20]
De tous biens pleine/Et qui le dira [1:36]
Mon pere m'adonne mari a 4 [1:13]
Een vroylic wesen [1:16]
Le serviteur hault guerdonne [4:36]
Tristitia vestra [1:21]
Der Hundt: Das kind lag in der wiegen - Secunda pars [6:31]
Benedictus qui venit [1:53]
Fortuna in mi [2:28]
Par ung jour de matinee [1:27]
Fortuna desperata [1:21]
Sanctus (Fortuna desperata) [1:39]
Frater conradus in fa/Exemplum [1:23]
Fortuna/Bruder Conrat [1:18]
Fortuna disperata/Sancte petre/Ora pro nobis [1:32]
Jacques BARBIREAU (1455 - 1491)
Een vroylic wesen [2:13]
Guillaume DUFAY (c.1400 - 1474)
Le serviteur hault guerdonne [4:36]
Juan de URREDE (c.1430 - after 1482)
Nunqua fu pena magiore [5:05]
Anonymous (15th Century)
Numqua fue pena maior [2:31]
Antoine BUSNOYS ? (c.1430 - 1492)
Fortuna desperata [1:21]