Was it only last August that I reviewed The Binchois Consort’s previous disc ‘The Lily & the Rose’, and went to hear them at Hereford Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival? Well, just before that disc came out, they had already recorded this disc, again tackling English music of the early to mid-fifteenth century.
This was such an important time in English music. Its style has been called the ‘contenance anglais’ because of the preference for smooth lines and the more consonant intervals of 3rds and 6ths. The pieces by John Dunstaple, Walter Frye and Robert Driffelde (apparently never recorded—his name does not even appear in Frank Llewellyn Harrison’s authoritative Music in Medieval Britain published 1958) exemplify this style. There also is (John?) Forest (d. 1453), not represented on this disc.
As in The Binchois Consort’s other recent CDs, the booklet is adorned with beautiful coloured photographs of medieval alabasters. This time, we can learn the significant aspects of the life of St Katherine, very popular throughout the middle ages, now remembered for the firework ‘Katherine Wheel’. The booklet shows the entire polyptych now found in the Ca' d’Oro in Venice, dated c.1450. Then, dotted around the texts and their translations, each of its five panels is highlighted. The amazing surviving colour, easily visible, has been wonderfully reproduced.
The section which shows the beheading of St Katherine is partially damaged: an arm is missing. In steps Sarah Danays, described as ‘sculptor in residence’, who has supplied the missing limb especially for this project. It looks a bit odd—very white compared with the weathered and greying look of the rest—but that may be the point. Andrew Kirkman mentions that it is the equivalent of completing a musical torso (think of Anthony Payne completing Elgar’s 3rd Symphony). Here the late Philip Weller, who also contributed to the booklet notes and to whose memory the CD is dedicated, has reconstructed an anonymous Gloria ‘Virgo flagellatur’, a text which focuses on the saint’s suffering.
The main work, randomly placed across the disc, is the Missa Nobilis et pulcra by Walter Frye. Unusually for English music of this period, it is given a troped Kyrie ‘Deus creator omnium’ . It is in three parts but occasionally moves to two, for example in the middle section of the Agnus dei. It is based on the plainchant Nobilis et pulcra used on St Katherine’s day (November 25th) as the first responsary at Matins. The rest of the chosen repertoire has a more or less direct link with the saint’s feast day. The exception may be the rather showy, isorhythmic and polytextual motet by Bittering from the Old Hall manuscript En Katerine solennia, which, it is thought, was composed for the wedding of Henry V to Catherine of Valois.
The Binchois Consort consist for this recording of two altos and four tenors. They have a superb blend, and always seem to judge tempi perfectly. They pronounce the Latin in what they consider to be the authentic manner of the period, so for example you will hear something akin to ‘percem’ for pacem and ‘diye’ for dei (forgiving the phonetics). I am not sure how necessary this really is, but it obviously works for them.
In addition to the fascinating (detailed and lengthy) essay mentioned above, the texts and so on, there is Weller and Kirkman’s ‘project note’ Late Medieval English Music and Alabaster, and a brief anonymous essay about the series of works by Sarah Danays The Arms of the Martyrs. There is also a lovely illustration of an alabaster found in Ashover church in Derbyshire, which is well worth seeing.