The small all-female French choir Discantus, which has mostly specialized in chant repertories, here takes on the polyphony of the High Renaissance, where the English cathedral sound and its relatives have reigned largely unchallenged for decades. The group chose well with Gilles Binchois, who left no full mass cycles that seem to demand uniformity of interpretation; Binchois' three-part textures are also suited to the limpid sound of a women's choir. What Discantus does is break up the continuity of the music. The program consists of a mass Ordinary, assembled from settings of individual sections and then separated again (although all the mass sections are near the beginning of the album), various Proper settings, hymns, carols, and several pieces of plainchant; these are apparently pronounced according to a new theory that is not explained terribly clearly in the booklet (in French and English, with all texts translated into both languages from Latin). The most striking thing is that the a cappella barrier is broken; a few of the pieces are played, by the choir members themselves, on handbells. No argument for authenticity is made for this practice, but as a conceptual evocation of the overall atmosphere in which this music arose, with church bells ringing at various intervals, it's a reasonable decision, and of course a female choir in this music is not making any claims for authenticity anyway. Beyond the bells, there's quite a bit of variety among the individual pieces, and the program seems to move through different territories in a way that even other recordings mixing mass Ordinary music and other pieces have not. Discantus and director Brigitte Lesne push the tempo a bit, both among pieces and within individual pieces; the interpretation is lyrical without being sweet, with a bit of grain in the voices but no attempt to create a particularly warm sound. When the music breaks down into solo passages they allow themselves a bit of vibrato. The overall effect is to move Binchois' sound closer to its English antecedents and away from the more abstract Netherlandish polyphony toward which it's pointed. This is an intimate, elegant way of performing Binchois, yet pungent, with the intervallic structure of the music emerging in total clarity. The "argument of beauty" title derives from the Latin causa pulchritudinis, the justification, according to one theory, that singers might use in applying non-notated accidentals and chromatic tones to the music. The title seems to serve here more as a general description, however. Recommended for those in search of a new take on the early Flemish Renaissance style.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim