Binchois Consort

Dufay and the Court of Savoy

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Guillaume Dufay's Missa Se la face ay pale, composed in the 1450s, is a milestone of music history by any standard. It was one of the first complete mass settings, including all five sections of the Ordinary, and it represented a major leap forward in terms of harnessing the expressive possibilities of the form. The polyphonic chanson Se la face ay pale (If my face is pale) on which it is based, also by Dufay, can generate momentum in several directions depending on its polyphonic treatment, and its tenor part is repeated as a cantus firmus and progressively sped up over the course of the mass, creating a simple but effective large-scale architecture. Further, Dufay was arguably music's first international star, hired to bring glory to the court of the Duchy of Savoy in what is now northwestern Italy; the pattern of bringing in prestigious musicians to adorn powerful states or other institutions has come down in one form or another to the present day. Both the mass and its place in early Renaissance society are expertly laid out in the booklet notes by Philip Weller, which appear in English, German, and French, although the Latin texts of the music are translated into English only. The performance by the Binchois Consort, with eight adult male singers, is superb. The group negotiates the challenges of paired voices, with exquisite control over vibrato; the singers convey something of the intensity the music had in its own time, and they carve out the significant details of the music: the expressive vertical sonorities, the modulation of contrapuntal complexity and simplicity that works in tandem with the cantus firmus line and it is these factors that are obscured in "purer" recordings." The singers reduce to quartets for some sections of the mass with lovely effect. The mass is not presented sequentially but intertwined with settings of a mass Proper connected with a local saint who was significant in the life of the Savoy court; these too furnish contrast with the mass music that would have kept things lively for congregants of the middle 15th century. The sound, recorded at the chapel of Oxford's All Souls College, is a tour de force on the part of Hyperion's engineers, who achieve maximum clarity in a difficult but rewarding environment. It is hard to imagine a better Renaissance mass recording.

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