For one of Western music’s indisputably great song composers, Binchois has enjoyed relatively little coverage on disc. The last solo anthology I can recall was from the Ensemble Gilles Binchois under Dominique Vellard. As the ensemble’s name implies, Graindelavoix sets great store by the interpretative and expressive possibilities of strongly individualised human voices. The idea that vocal production may have been far more particularised and heterogeneous than is currently fashionable informs a significant minority of recordings, especially from Italy and France. This ensemble use instruments as well, and adopt the fairly widespread continental practice of interspersing exclusively instrumental “verses” within the musical settings of otherwise strictly sectionalised poetry. Finally, ornamentation is taken as a given, and in some songs it is applied with a refreshing freedom reminiscent of the Ars subtilior of the previous century.
Whatever view one takes on these positions, the results are mixed, often frustratingly so; on the plus side, much care is taken to vary the manner of performance from one song to the next, and at their best the results are indeed expressive and involving. Some may find the nasal quality cultivated by some of the singers a little grating, especially when intonation and – more importantly – the delivery of the text suffer as a result. And given the meticulous attention to matters of detail, it is surprising that the tempo relations between the sections of Ockeghem’s lament on Binchois (one of few performance aspects about which there is reasonable certainty) are so mishandled. Speaking of this piece in particular, I can only report my bemusement at a performance that claims to be based on my published edition of both text and music, while ignoring its most crucial suggestions regarding the latter.