Gothic Voices

The Spirits of England and France, Vol. 1: Music of the Later Middle Ages for Court and Church

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The Spirits of England and France is the first volume in a series of five recorded by Christopher Page's group Gothic Voices. The idea behind the series was to contrast examples drawn from the ample extant French medieval literature with the more scant English variety, and overall it demonstrates that Franco-Flemish musical practice had more in common with the English than to other music producing cultures during this era, even as England and France were continually warring with one another.

This first volume, subtitled "Music for Court and Church from the Later Middle Ages," is an odd mixture of various things and may represent Gothic Voices getting their feet wet in this concept. Among the most notable successes here are the four monophonic pieces on the program, sung byAndrew Tusa, Paul Agnew, Julian Podger, and Leigh Nixon, respectively; all of these are beautifully done. Nixon ably sings the conductus "In rama sonat gemitus," a sad piece dating from 1160 that laments the exile of soon-to-be-martyred canon Thomas à Becket. Standouts found among polyphonic offerings, which naturally dominate the proceedings, include a beautiful, hushed thirteenth-century setting of the Ave Maria, and the weird but affecting virelai "Laus detur multipharia."

There are some wrong turns, most unpleasantly in "Presul nostri temporis," a work from the School of Perotin sung with nasal-sounding French vowel sounds -- English choirs are not known for their prowess in attempting to sing in imagined medieval French dialects. However, Page is a renowned philologist in addition to being a musician; one must assume there is some historic basis for such treatment. Pavlo Beznosiuk is heard playing the medieval fiddle in three estampie, presumably included to break up this otherwise all-vocal program. While the tunes are pleasant, they sound strange without their percussion, drones, and other devices commonly used to flesh out medieval dances. Page, in his notes, makes the point that estampie are not dances at all, but that "the appeal of such pieces lay, in part, in the way they commanded the attention of anyone who wished to follow their intricate form."

Nevertheless, the moments that are good in this collection are very good indeed; of the five volumes Hyperion issued in The Spirits of England and France series, this one was probably the weakest overall. The Spirits of England and France is a long program at 62 minutes, encompassing 20 pieces, not one of which cracks the five-minute mark. First-time listeners should observe the division of the program into two parts and take a break at track 9, or devise their own breaks and take it in three parts. Otherwise, it may prove too much of a good thing.

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