Design by Austin Boyer
Review of Du Fay
This two-disc set is such a good idea and I can’t imagine why no-one had thought of it before.
These masses are late works in the sense that they seem to date from after 1450 and all use a tenor cantus firmus. To take them chronologically, in the case of the Missa Se la face ay pale, the chanson melody, composed originally in the 1430s also influences the head motif of each movement and informs the counterpoint throughout. Now you might not agree with this last statement and I am a bit out on a limb here. David Fallows even writes in his book on Dufay in the ‘Master Musicians’ series (Dent 1982) that “the cycle contains practically no reference to anything in the chanson except the tenor”. However I feel that tiny fragments of the chanson permeate many of the lines both melodic and rhythmic. In any event this is a work of much renown and its modern sounding, almost major, tonality has made it approachable.
There have been several other recordings but the one which is quite easily available is the one on Hyperion (CDA67715) recorded by the all-male Binchois Ensemble in 2008 and it’s interesting to compare. Cut Circle enthusiastically proclaim that it is their intention in this performance to “capture the energy and intensity of these [masses] in which the composer is clearly strutting his stuff”. It’s interesting that the Binchois’s Gloria comes out at 9.27 and their Credo at 9.14 compared with 7.57 and 7.41 on this new recording. The Binchois not only offer a steadier tempo but a general sense of more space and spirituality. Even so this newcomer holds the attention and gives the listener a better sense of shape and form. Incidentally Cantica Symphonia reviewed by me in 2015 (Glossa GCDP31907) takes over ten minutes for this Gloria.
Similar comments apply to the next work on CD 1 – the Missa L’homme Armé – and it’s worth comparing with Cantica Symphonia again. Their performance weighs in at over forty luscious minutes – the mass is certainly of symphonic proportions – and this new disc at just under thirty-five. Some will argue that the mass comes from Dufay’s Savoy years, like our first mass: 1453-4. Others, like David Fallows think it much later. It was certainly written for a group of high quality singers with many subtly complex rhythmic sections in evidence. There is an added problem, if Jesse Rodin is correct in his extensive booklet notes, which is made even more challenging by many clashes of B flat against the B natural required by the L’homme Armé melody. This tune was very popular for mass settings throughout the fifteenth and into the sixteenth centuries; it even drew in Palestrina. Its useful tonic and dominant emphasis allows convenient harmonic progressions. I love the genius way in which Dufay saves the full melody to be heard at a completely recognisable speed until the last invocation in the Agnus dei; it is beautifully brought out in this new recording. Incidentally the earliest setting, of an extant forty or so, may be that of Johannes Regis. The Regis has been recorded by The Clerks on Musique en Wallonie MEW 0848-9.
Unfortunately the exciting, even vigorous, singing mentioned above can lead to insensitivity. We don’t have any idea what Dufay expected by way of dynamic contrast except in Dufay’s thinning out and thickening of textures. However, for this listener at least the Credo of this Mass, to use one example, is too unvaried in dynamic; too much, to use that horrid phrase, ‘in your face’. I’m not saying that the Oxford Camerata on Naxos 8.553087 under Jeremy Summerly have the mass nailed, but they do adopt a kinder approach which allows for some reflective moments.
It’s also worth bearing in mind with this mass – and indeed the others – that both Cut Circle and the Oxford Camerata consist of eight voices, the top part being sung by women. The Hilliard Ensemble’s wonderfully spacious performance on an EMI LP is all-male and transposed. This was transferred to CD on CDC 7 47628 2.
As great as the L’homme Armé mass is, CD 2 opens with the wonderful Missa Ecce Ancilla Domine which is thought to date from c.1463 at times seems unsurpassable. It is his most economical and is more restrained. Indeed although in four parts – like all of these masses – on looking at the score I would say that about half of it is in two parts (as in the Christe Eleison) with very little three-part writing. Two chants are used, a very rare feature, that is the Ecce Ancilla chant, in the first half of each movement, and, in the same mode, the Beata es Maria chant which appears in the second half of each. Why he did this is not really understood. In addition Cut Circle make it easier for us to grasp Dufay’s technique by giving the chant text to the lower voices when it is used (the bass is textless in the manuscript) and the mass ordinary text to the upper two. They do this as well with the other mass recorded here: the Missa Ave Regina Caelorum. The Ensemble Gilles Binchois, in a challengingly slow 1994 recording, do the same on their recording on Virgin Veritas (7243 545050 later reissued) but they place the Missa Ancilla in a liturgical context surrounded by other chants and Dufay’s attributed Mass Proper cycle De angelis.
The Missa Ave Regina Caelorum is preceded by the plainchant and by the longer of Dufay’s two settings, in four parts, of the motet; the one he asked to have sung at his funeral service. The text is troped, presumably by the composer himself, to include the line ‘Have mercy on your labouring Dufay” and ‘Have mercy on your pleading Dufay”. Touchingly he brings back the music of the last line in the Agnus dei to the words ‘Miserere nobis’. The motet may date from c.1464 but the mass is from the composer’s very last years. Even so it shows no loss of energy and nor is it short on invention. The fragmentary nature of chant resulted in Dufay breaking it up into small sections so that in the Kyrie there are, unusually, seven sections including two which are free of the cantus firmus. The opening motif is repeated in each section and it is not dissimilar in contour to that of the Missa Se la face ay pale. Technically this mass is challenging both to the performers with its changes of metre and what one might call, unexpected chromatic turns and to the listeners with so much to take in. It may well have been written for the dedication of Cambrai Cathedral in 1472. I was there only a few days before writing this but how disappointing that the Cathedral Dufay knew was destroyed in 1789-90.
The CD comes in a firm card cover with a lavish booklet of sixty pages. The essay is well translated into English and German and all sung texts are given. There are also illustrations of pages of a manuscript copy of the Kyrie of two of the masses. It’s quite fun to try to follow these whilst listening.
To recap, I have some reservations about the interpretations of these pieces but I would not let that deter you from buying this set. The performers are clearly so inside the music and so technically assured and the masses make such excellent bed-fellows.