“Music from the Reign of Francis I” – a combination of a bound book and 2 CDs

“Music from the Reign of Francis I” – Doulce Mémoire/ Denis Raisin Dadre – Zig Zag Térritoires ZZT357 (2 CDs & book), 142:47 (6/30/15) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Sumptuously packaged with a beautifully-illustrated, hardbound book, this latest presentation from flutist Denis Raisin Dadre and his vocal-original instrument ensemble Doulce Mémoire, commemorates the assumption of Francis I to the French throne in 1514 at the age of 21. It is a veritable feast of previously unrecorded music and a perfect holiday gift for audiophiles who love both the history and the music of the Renaissance.

Since 1989, when Dadre formed Doulce Mémoire, 15 members strong for this project, he has devised a series of programs set in Renaissance contexts, both in concert and on CDs, which for audiophile splendor rival those similar large-scale projects of Harmonia mundi and Jordi Savall’s AliaVox (though not SACD). Based on the kind of scholarship and research that can only take place on the spot where the Renaissance actually happened, these programs are part of an ongoing process through which Dadre and Doulce Mémoire continually re-examine their understanding of manuscripts and facsimiles, and widen notions of the sounds Renaissance instruments could have made, resulting in spontaneous, richly colorful, involving musical entertainments.

Francis deserves the honor. He was only 21 when he began a reign that would last more than 30 years, during which time he would establish himself not only as a great warrior and diplomat but as a prodigious patron of the arts. It was Francis I who imported not only the Mona Lisa, but Leonardo as well. This extraordinary artistic patronage naturally included music in his cultural array, in part because he knew that music was perfect for entertaining at great diplomatic events. Today, it’s the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Then, in the early 16th century, it was a battle between the bands of France and England, with both the warring kings themselves, Francis I and Henry VIII, hoping (vainly as it turned out) for reconciliation, in attendance.

The historic halftime show took place five years after Francis I became king on the iconic Field of Gold, in a small village near Calais in extreme northern France, where the two kings met. It was specifically attendant to the diplomacy, meant to be as you can hear on this recording, as an amazing musical tournament.

The combatants were the choirs of the of the King of France and the Chapel Royal of Henry VIII, supported by their retinues of instrumental forces. The venue was the actual Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The main event was a mass which Dadre has reconstructed in this recording, which makes up the first CD. The second contains intimate music for the inner chambers of Francis’s great castles at Chambord and Fontainebleau, subtle, refined and learned, starting with an exquisite Pavane by Claude Gervais. In those days, the music was  performed by the Chambre du Roi, the finest musicians of the realm. They can have been no finer than the forces Dadre and Doulce Mémoire have assembled.

“I had to gather as much information as possible to get some idea of what really went on during the Mass that concluded the Field of the Cloth of Gold,” Dadre writes. “When our concert program based on that historical event turned out to be very convincing, after we finished the recording the idea occurred to us of coupling it with the recording we were planning on the Chambre du Roi company commemorating the 500th anniversary of the 1515 accession of Francis I to the French throne.”

As would have occurred to most of us, I suppose. If it’s purely the sound you’re after, Zig Zag’s engineers have got it exactly right, from the opening trumpets and drums of the Mass to the delicate closing references to the hope spring. Like all the best sound from the French classical music industry, it’s more than just gorgeous and utterly natural, it’s there with you as if speakers and headphones had ceased to exist. And if the Doulce Mémoire thing gets you, there’s a lot to catch up on.

Caveat emptor: The Mass is interrupted three times by, no doubt well meant, by formal heraldic announcements whose main virtue is that they total less than two minutes. Breathe deeply and imagine you’re there at the Field of Gold, hearing them intoned over loudspeakers, and they will quickly pass.

—Laurence Vittes

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