Music for the 100 Years' War
The Binchois Ensemble/Andrew Kirkman
rec. Ascot Priory, Berkshire, 7-9 January 2016 HYPERION CDA68170 [76.35]
Just a few weeks ago I wrote in a review of ‘Beneath the Northern Sky’ a disc recorded by the Orlando Consort (Hyperion CDA68132) that “I hope that the Binchois ensemble will come back to the ‘Old Hall Manuscript’ because their sound is ideal”, little did I know that my wish was to be so immediately fulfilled. But I’m not suggesting that all of these works are from the same manuscript or indeed the same century, but you get the gist.
The 100 years war covered a period from, its often said 1337 - the Battle of Crecy up to about 1453 encompassing the Battle of Agincourt which, despite that major victory of the English forces did not end the conflict, indeed things only went downhill afterwards during the reign of the hapless Henry VI after his father’s early death. This disc presents a handful of 14th Century compositions and culminates in John Dunstaple, Lionel Power and the mysterious but underrated (John?) Forest, composing as late as the 1430’s.
I should nail my colours to the mast immediately and say that this disc did not disappoint and it will indeed be one of my CDs of the year. But let’s take it apart a little and add flesh onto the bones.
I was sorry at first that much of the music has been recorded before but quickly that thought evaporated because of the strong and yet individual approach of the singers, making often well know pieces sound different as with the ‘Agincourt Carol’ itself, or in the best and most believable performance I’ve ever encountered of Alanus’s highly complex motet Sub Arcturo plebs which is now thought to apply to Henry V and not be of the late 14th Century despite its ars subtilior style.
But the unique thing about this disc is its subtitle ‘A brief history in Music and Alabaster”. It is one of the most beautiful booklets Hyperion have even produced for not only are all of the texts superbly and clearly presented and with excellent modern translations but there are colour photos throughout of various alabaster survivals from c.1400 which can be found mostly, in the museum in Nottingham. This was, as anyone who knows anything about Nottinghamshire’s medieval church monuments and memorials, and I was there seeing some myself only recently, the top centre for alabaster carving especially during the fifteenth century. The figures of saints, scenes of the crucifixion and of angels are beautifully decorated and even retain some red and yellow ocre. These photographs are also relevant to the chosen texts and music.
Another feature is that the pieces have been divided up into five sections. The first, ‘Kingship and the Rise of Nation’ is preceded by a lively carol ‘Anglia tibi turbidas’. There are three pieces including a superb isorthymic motet by Dunstaple Preco prehemencia connected with St. John the Baptist.
The second section is ‘St. Thomas Becket – Protector of England’ and includes Power’s extraordinarily original settings of a Gloria and Credo based on a plainchant suitable for the saint. The more I hear of Lionel Power the more impressive he becomes. This is followed by ‘St. Edmund King and Martyr’ who had been England’s saint before St. George was promoted by Edward III in the mid 14th Century. But of that period is the Ave Miles/Ave rex, patrone, which is a very expressive motet but sung here in a rather perfunctory manner. Forest’s Gaude martyr motet I don’t think has been recorded before and it represents his fourth recorded work in the catalogue. His style is even more mellifluous than Dunstaple’s and quite beautiful. It seems that he was Dean of Wells Cathedral but was strongly associated with the Royal Chapel.
The fourth section is ‘The coronation of Henry VI’. This took place in Normandy in 1422 and the chant Ecce mitto angelum was sing at the event but it is pure speculation that the Dunstaple Missa Da gaudiorum premis was. The vast, troped Kyrie has been wonderfully reconstructed by Philip Weller for the disc. He and Andrew Kirkman are also responsible for the wonderful booklet notes which, unlike so many others, go through the music in the order they are heard. The last section is simply called ‘Conclusion’ and consists of the Agincourt Carol and a rather reflective Kyrie Domine miserere which the pious Henry VI may well have appreciated.
This then is a very fine release and one that is beautifully recorded and presented.
1 Anglia tibi turbidas ANON [5'44] 2 Sub Arturo plebs ALANUS (fl late 14th century) [4'03]
3 Ascendit Christus super celos FOREST (fl 1400–1450) [5'00]
4 Preco preheminencie DUNSTAPLE (c1390–1453) [5'45]
5 Ianuam quam clauserat ANON [1'43]
6 Gloria ‘Ad Thome memoriam’ POWER (d1445) [3'49]
7 Pastor cesus in gregis medio CHANT [1'08]
8 Opem nobis, o Thoma ANON [0'40]
9 Credo ‘Opem nobis, o Thoma’ POWER [4'33]
10 De flore martyrum ANON [1'45]
11 Ave miles ANON [1'47]
12 Gaude martyr FOREST [4'11]
13 Ecce mitto angelum CHANT [3'04]
Missa Da gaudiorum premia DUNSTAPLE [18'40]
14 Kyrie rex genitor [6'52]
15 Credo [5'04]
16 Sanctus [6'44]
17 Veni Sancte Spiritus DUNSTAPLE [5'16]
18 The Agincourt Carol ANON [3'42]
19 Kyrie … Domine miserere – Ab inimicis nostris ANON [5'35]