English composer John Dunstable was the Beethoven of the fifteenth century, a transitional figure whose work swept away all that went before it. Nevertheless, it has not been the easiest thing to enjoy Dunstable's music in a current context, and that is not for lack of love on the part of scholars and early music ensembles. Although English, very little of Dunstable's music survives in his native land thanks to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and its requisite destruction of Latin music manuscripts, occurring more than 80 years after Dunstable wrote his last note of music. The bulk of Dunstable's scores survive in continental Europe only, scattered as far away as Russia, some of it being unidentified and/or incomplete.
Gathering the various scraps and fragments that belong to the hand of Dunstable is a labor of love for Antony Pitts, leader of Tonus Peregrinus, who helped edit the well-known Metronome disc of Dunstable's music made a decade ago by the Orlando Consort and works very closely with Dunstable's top scholar, Margaret Bent. Now Naxos has provided Pitts with a platform of his own in the work of this great composer in John Dunstable: Sweet Harmony -- Masses and Motets. Tonus Peregrinus, a vocal ensemble made up of first-rank singers led by Pitts, address the considerable intricacies of this music with a deft touch and flawless intonation. The texture moves from anywhere between two to eight voices, but sounds neither asthmatically thin nor well-fed and tubby; throughout it is perfectly rounded, well balanced, and seems suspended in mid-air, just as cathedral music should sound. The Gloria and Credo "Jesu Christe Fili Dei" are given in particularly deep and moving performances, not to mention Bent's marvelous realization of Dunstable's incomplete Gloria in Canon.
Dunstable's harmony is "sweet" indeed; and his approach to triadic combinations of sonorities was the part of Dunstable that reached out to his contemporaries so forcefully. Notwithstanding the Orlando Consort and others who have interpreted his music, this seems like the first collection of Dunstable that truly makes clear what was different about his music versus that of his predecessors, or for that matter, successors. This is attributable to Pitts' superb grasp of what makes Dunstable's music tick. After some time spent immersed in John Dunstable: Sweet Harmony -- Masses and Motets, one will hear the biting dissonances of Dunstable's false relations as though they are consonant intervals, much as his audiences heard them in the early fifteenth century. John Dunstable: Sweet Harmony -- Masses and Motets serves as a wonderful gateway to the music of the man who fostered the Renaissance.