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Blue Heron: Dufay and English Polyphony

available at Amazon
Aston / Jones / Mason (from the Peterhouse Partbooks), Blue Heron

(released on March 13, 2010)
BHCD 1002 | 63'48"

available at Amazon
Du Fay: Motets, Hymns, Chansons, Sanctus Papale, Blue Heron

(released on March 1, 2007)
BHCD 1001 | 73'58"
The Boston-based Renaissance choir Blue Heron came on my radar screen earlier this week with their Washington debut at Dumbarton Oaks. The group has made two recordings, both on their own label: a maiden release of music by Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397-1474) in 2007, and a recent release of dense, large-scale motets by lesser-known English composers from the Peterhouse Partbooks. The latter collection has been researched and transcribed by Nick Sandon, a musicologist formerly on the faculty of Exeter University, a set of choir books copied during the reign of Henry VIII and acquired later by Peterhouse College at Cambridge as part of the attempt to establish a chapel and choir there.

The repertory in these books, mostly in five parts and in the style of English polyphony just before the Reformation, is becoming more and more known and beloved by choirs who specialize in Renaissance music. According to Sandon, over half of the pieces in these books are found in no other source: Blue Heron performs the five recorded on their disc from Sandon's edition, work that required the completion or editing of some missing or fragmentary parts. Four of the pieces are lengthy settings of votive antiphon texts, devotional works with impassioned and unusual texts, ranging in musical styles from the somewhat old-fashioned to the most current for the time, with Robert Jones's setting of the Magnificat, with polyphony in alternation with plainchant verses. Apart from being of musicological interest, this recording is beautifully executed, with two or three singers on each part.

Only one of the pieces has reached my ears before, Hugh Aston's Gaude virgo mater Christi having also been recorded by Stile Antico, who were in Washington last month to perform at NPR, on a tour of the United States that sadly did not include an actual concert here. The only reservation about Blue Heron's sound on these works is some intonation and tone color shortcomings in the upper parts, which do not always line up perfectly in what is generally a beautifully balanced ensemble (the comparison to the superior sound of Stile Antico here is telling). While the sound on this more recent disc is not as rarefied as it could be, it is an improvement over the slightly less even sounds on the older Dufay disc, including some unstable intonation in the upper parts (including the very interesting mezzo-soprano Daniela Tošič, a voice that stands out, and not always in the best way) and some nasality and growling in the lower parts. Furthermore, the Dufay pieces have been much more widely recorded, on discs by the Gilles Binchois Ensemble, Gothic Voices, Diabolus in Musica, the Binchois Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble, the Clemencic Consort, Pomerium, and others. So, while the Peterhouse disc gets a warm recommendation, this Dufay disc, in spite of many lovely moments and the ingenuity of the incomparable ingenuity of its composer (some of the music is attributed to other composers), is noted more than recommended.


Mark Berry said...

I hope you will forgive me this piece of pedantry, as an erstwhile Fellow of Peterhouse, but it is plain Peterhouse, not Peterhouse College, which would be akin to St Peter's College College. More importantly, the Peterhouse partbooks are an extraordinary source; it is heartening at last to see - and to hear - this music being performed.

Charles T. Downey said...

Not pedantry at all -- I am glad to have the correction!