Monday 22 December 2014

Thoughtful approach to Dufay masses

Dufay - The Masses for 1453 - Cantica Symphonia - Glossa
Guillaume Dufay Missa Se la face ay pale, Missa L'Homme arme; Cantican Symphonia, Maletto; GLOSSA
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 10 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Finely performed new version of two Dufay masses, with thoughtful approach to instrumentation and interpretation

The Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay (c1397 - 1474) was one of the most influential composers of his generation and would go on to have a remarkable influence on subsequent generations. Seven complete mass settings by him survive, as well as numerous other sacred and secular works. We have little, though, beyond the music itself and commentators must try to reconstruct not only what the composer's original intentions were, but how the works were first performed. On this new disc on Glossa from Guiseppe Maletto and Cantica Symphonia presents two of the earliest masses to use a popular song as cantus firmus, Missa Se la face ay pale and Missa L'Homme arme. The Cd's title, The Masses for 1453, relates the events of that year (the fall of Byzantium and the acquisition of the Turin Shroud by Dufay's patron Duke Louis of Savoy) to the subjects of Dufay's masses. The performance is also interestingly speculative as to the forces used.

The problem with Dufay's music is that we have the manuscripts but no written reports for quite how the works were actually performed. The surviving manuscripts are problematical with some lines untexted and seemingly incompatible with the text in the other voices. But an early assumption that instruments were involved has been questioned partly because there are no surviving accounts for musicians being involved in the chapel. On this disc the performers have gone with instinct and perform with a mixture of singers and instrumentalists - seven singers and five instrumentalists in Missa Se le face ay pale.

Missa Se le face ay pale dates from 1453 and in the booklet article Giuseppe Maletto and Guido Magnano relate the piece directly to the acquisition of the Turin Shroud. They see in the way Dufay handles the musical material from his song in the cantus firmus as having distinct Christological references (ie. related to the nature and person of Jesus). Missa l'Homme Arme was written in the late 1450's or early 1460's and the Cd article relates this mass to the interest in Christ the Warrior which arose after the Fall of Constantinople.

The performances are of such quality, however, that you can listen to the disc quite happily without worrying about the detailed musicological issues. I rather like the sound world that the performers create with its mixture of voices and instruments. Missa Se le face ay pale for instance the long notes of the cantus firmus are given to the slide trumpet alone. The way the instruments are used sometimes to support voices and sometimes taking separate lines, is very convincing and quite simply expressive.

The singers on the disc have clear direct voices, there are no strange bulges and no excessive vibrato, there is simply a clean focussed sound. The results are quite smooth, and perhaps some people might want more rough intensity, but I rather appreciate the plangency that the performers create. The parts are all evenly balanced, with no sense of the one or the other being brought out, and the performance has a poised feel to it..

Cantica Symphonia is an Italian group founded in 1995 whose performers have specialised in performing medieval and renaissance polyphony. But ultimately with music of this period, the listener must judge for themselves which style and approach works and for me this does. I found the whole disc highly evocative of this fascinating period with its vast changes in Christendom, in politics and in music. Here we hear Dufay's music in its elegant complexity and expressiveness which so dazzled his contemporaries.

Guillaume Dufay (c1397 - 1474) - Missa Se le face ay pale
Guillaume Dufay (c1397 - 1474) -Missa L'Homme arme
Cantica Symphonia (Laura Fabris, Alena Dantcheva, Francesca Cassinari - soprano, Gianduca Ferrarini, Giuseppa Maletto, Massimo Altieri - tenor, Marco Scavazza - baritone, Guido Magnano - organ, Marta Graziolino - harp, Svetlana Fomina, Efix Puleo - fiddle Mauri Morini, David Yacus - slide trumpet and sackbut)
Recorded Chiesa della BV Maria del Monte Carmelo al Colletto, Roletto, Italy  in July 2011 (Missa Se le face ay pale) and July 2013 (Missa L'Homme arme)
GLOSSA GCDP31907 1CD [80.17]

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