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Briefly Noted: Late Medieval Polyphonic Masses

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Messes de Barcelone et d'Apt, Ensemble Gilles Binchois, D. Vellard

(released on August 16, 2019)
Evidence Classics EVCD060 | 63'35"
As you move through the 16th century, you can hear European sacred music crystallizing around the foundations of tonality. In most cases earlier than that, it is still the modes, non-triadic harmonies, and parallel voice movement that are most prevalent. That austere sound is what is refreshing to the ear in this new release from the outstanding all-male choir Ensemble Gilles Binchois.

The anchor of the program is two compilations of the Mass Ordinary, disparate musical movements by different composers writing in the musical style favored by the papal court in Avignon, the so-called Ars Nova, but associated with other southern courts. The movements are all found in two polyphonic sources, ms. 971 in Barcelona's Biblioteca de Catalunya and ms. 16bis in the chapter library of the Cathedral of Sainte-Anne in Apt. Extravagant tropes are woven into the Ordinary texts, particularly in the Barcelona Sanctus.

Motets from these two sources, as well as a couple from ms. 1361 from the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, round out the selection. The pieces, composed in three or four parts, are spread in various ways among the six male voices. Dominique Vellard's direction emphasizes harmonious balance among the voices, as well as a pleasing variety of articulation, from choppy to velours-smooth. The sound, recorded in the resonant Benedictine abbey church at Vézelay, is scrumptious. Medieval instruments, two bowed vielles and a gittern, complement the texture in the sung pieces; a couple of the motet pieces have been arranged entirely for these instruments.

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