Dufay’s songs are not well served on CD. They make episodic appearances here and there in song anthologies, but ever since the Medieval Ensemble of London’s recording of the complete secular music (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 12/81 – nla, sadly never reissued on CD), I cannot recall a single disc devoted entirely to this immensely varied repertory. (The discography of the composer’s sacred music, in contrast, continues to grow.) So it would be pleasant indeed to welcome this new release unreservedly.
I should say straightaway that the members of Ensemble Unicorn play with conviction and style, and with a real flair for their instruments. Their approach to the music has a long tradition, and is common to a good number of European ensembles (particularly in Italy and Germany): the musical text of the songs is treated as a blueprint for improvisation and formal experimentation. That is to say that the songs’ strophic nature is often jettisoned in favour of more or less extended introductions or postludes, based more or less loosely on the musical material itself; and the musical repeats prescribed by the poetic forms are interpreted fairly freely. Exponents of this approach compare this to the kind of freedom found in certain forms of jazz (certainly Ensemble Unicorn mention their members’ interest in that direction). That is well and good, but a jazz-based approach need not be achieved at the expense of a song’s formal structure. After all, much jazz takes harmonic grids as its basis, especially when a song is reworked. Besides, such reworkings may come across very effectively in live performance, but some of those recorded here don’t bear repeated listening.
Another worry is vocal participation, or more often the lack of it. Bernhard Landauer’s light tone is capable of several degrees of shading, and his contribution is a telling one; but in several instances (most obviously the canonic songs Puis que vous estez campieur and Par droit je puis bien complaindre) the music cries out for an accompanying voice, rather than the recorder provided here. I confess that decisions like this leave me nonplussed. So perhaps it’s worth repeating that these musicians know what they want, and how to go about getting it. Beyond that, caveat emptor.