Students and others who set themselves to the task of understanding the initially elusive musical language of the Renaissance often learn about Dufay and the cantus firmus -- the preexisting chant or song around which a mass was built -- and about his mathematically dizzying isorhythmic motet Nuper rosarum flores. The more intimate sacred motet, directly expressive of its text, seems to be more the province of Josquin Desprez, two generations later; Dufay's motets, many of which address Mary, are rather tough going for the newcomer. They are not closely tied to the text like the motets of Josquin, and even those that have a cantus firmus don't feature it as an obvious unifying device the way Dufay's masses do.
This superb French disc is the one that clarifies what Dufay's motets are all about. This may not knock Beethoven and Andrea Bocelli off the top of the classical charts, but anyone with an interest in the rather arcane musical language of the early Flemish-Italian Renaissance, or even in the art of the period, should add this disc to his or her library. The Ensemble Musica Nova strives for absolute clarity of texture. It sings a cappella (as Dufay himself is thought to have preferred), with text added to the untexted lower parts for greater intelligibility. The group sings precisely but in a relaxed fashion that gets across the crucial sense of when a line of the polyphony is being ornamented by the composer -- the sense of expression in Dufay's music is very much bound up with ornament and rhythm, which most performances don't communicate very well. The "flowers" referred to in the texts -- Mary, the city of Florence -- seem almost to burst from the music, which may seem remarkable to anyone who has sat through a lot of dull Dufay performances, but sample the first or the third track. (English text translations in the booklet do not, unfortunately, run parallel with the Latin and French, but follow them at the end.) The booklet notes are rather dense, not always smoothly translated ("to sing of death enabled musicians and poets to suggest a filiation"?) and confusingly divided into two separate essays, one dealing with the allusive quality of Dufay's texts and the other delving into musical structure and into what Dufay's audiences would have listened for in the two types of motets represented here, the motet with cantus firmus and the freely composed "song motet." The notes may be a hard slog for those without some previous knowledge of the subject, but effort expended in understanding them will bring these pieces alive and deepen the listener's perception of Dufay as the composer, perhaps more than any other, who lay right at the emergence of the idea of individual musical expression that is taken for granted today. The disc can also be appreciated for its sensuous surfaces alone, and Mornant church where the music was recorded could not have been more appropriate to the performers' aims. An essential choice for libraries -- the disc really furnishes enough material for an upper-level or graduate class all by itself -- or for Renaissance collections.