Binchois Consort / Andrew Kirkman

Music for Saint Katherine of Alexandria

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Saint Katherine of Alexandria may or may not have actually existed, but the tale of the imprisoned 17-year-old Christian martyr was catnip to medieval Christians, and the English cult of devotion to this saint (ca. 287-ca. 305) was in full swing in the era of Dunstaple and his contemporaries. This puts it right in the sweet spot of England's Binchois Consort and its conductor, Andrew Kirkman. Katherine was represented in quite a number of alabaster sculptures of the time, and Kirkman takes the unusual step of employing a "sculptor in residence," Sarah Danays, to add to this body of work. The music is the main attraction, however, and it's gorgeous. The very small Renaissance vocal group has its pros and cons, but here, in music of a highly devotional mood, it works very well. Dunstaple is represented, but more of the program is devoted to the likes of Walter Frye (d. 1475), Thomas Byttering (active 1410-1420), and Robert Driffelde (active mid-15th century). There are also examples of the faburden or fauxbourdon technique, a semi-improvised form of singing that cultivated composers took up and used to expand the palette of vertical harmonies in polyphony with the all-important third. Sample Virgo flagellatur to hear this unique effect, which is mentioned in music history books but not so often performed. The presence of this album on British classical charts (where several previous Binchois Consort albums had already landed) is unsurprising, for no matter how scholarly Kirkman's approach may be, he gets a sensuous tone from his six singers. Hyperion contributes superb engineering in the entirely appropriate Ascot Priory in Berkshire. Highly recommended.

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