The Lily and the Rose = Works by John Cooke, Walter Frye, Guillaume Le Rouge, John Bedyngham, John Dunstaple, Thomas Damett—The Binchois Consort (Timothy Travers-Brown, James Hall, altos; Dominic Bland, Nichoals Madden, George Pooley, Matthew Vine, tenors)—Hyperion Records CDA68228—73:00 [Distr. by PIAS] *****:
Stepping into the repertoire of early music, especially so of the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods, always requires an adjustment for me. The sound world—including the vocal performance style in this recording, the modes, and the style of writing together—is one far removed for most of us. It is special for this reason, that it can evoke a very different time and place. The Binchois Consort is an excellent vocal ensemble and perform music by Cooke, Frye, Dunstaple, Plummer, and others with great care and beauty in this album, The Lily and the Rose.
The project started with alabaster art housed or cataloged by Nottingham Castle, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Birmingham. “One of the chief purposes of all the music sung in proximity to the alabaster images, as also of the brilliant pigments, the translucency and texture of the stone, and the (expensive) light of burning wax candles that accompanied them, was to vivify the experience of the whole physical context—and of the devotions it served—for all those present,” they write in the album’s liner notes. And in this visual art and music context, the album’s booklet becomes very important, with the reproduction of the stone carvings in color. Pieces, then, were chosen around the Marian themes such as the Annunciation, the Assumption and Coronation, and the intercession against plague.
The pairing of music and visuals also helps us to see the stylistic discord from our current time with ancient art. Combining media in this way is an interesting way to move the listener closer in time to the music. This anchoring is important from an academic standpoint, but too from a more purely artistic one. This music is art that served a function beyond tickling the ears.
The Binchois do not rush at all in their performances. Hyperion has captured their sound closely, producing a quite transparent result: the texts are all easily heard. In many plainchant recordings, the sound is recorded farther away and the ensemble’s sound is notoriously messy. The Binchois too are to be commended for a very consistent vocal style from among the ensemble of up to six singers (two alto, four tenor). In the performance of chant, they are lock-step together. Harmony, too, is sure, a result of excellent intonation between parts.
Music so far removed from our own sound world does become somewhat specialist in nature. Chant and polyphony isn’t going to be of supreme interest to a wide audience, and admittedly, my own exposure to this repertoire was concentrated some years ago with intense study in music history courses in college. That said, in small doses for me, this music is of exquisite beauty, and I am hard pressed in exploring my collection of recordings to find any one recording or ensemble that matches the sonic clarity of the Binchois Consort. That they have worked as part of an multimedia project to bring text, art, and song together only demonstrates their commitment to helping us better appreciate this ancient art.