DUFAY Les Messes à Teneur
This is a red-letter day: at last we have uniform and sensible recordings of the four great cantus firmus Masses that are more or less all we have from the last 20 or so years of Dufay’s life. As luck would have it, these Masses are not just all top-flight masterpieces but all slightly different in layout and approach: the Missa Se la face ay pale is built on the tenor of a much earlier polyphonic song of his own; the Missa L’homme armé is probably the first of the 40-odd known Masses built on that monophonic song of unknown origin; the Missa Ecce ancilla/Beata es uses two different chants; and the Missa Ave regina caelorum uses the chant in both the lower voices. Between them these works marvellously chart the state of the cyclic Mass in the third quarter of the 15th century.
The ensemble Cut Circle – already famous for their earlier double-disc set of Josquin and De Orto, also for Musique en Wallonie – comprises just eight singers, with two women on the top voice. Dufay would have had men on top, but Carolann Buff and Mary Gerbi are so good that nobody will regret their contribution. These are all top-rate singers with pure and excellently focused voices: every one of them appears here as a soloist in one of the duet sections, and the intonation and ensemble are beyond reproach.
What some listeners may find a stumbling block is the speeds Jesse Rodin adopts. For example, the Kyrie of the Missa Se la face ay pale comes in at 3'09", far faster than any of the 12 other recordings apart from Thomas Binkley in 1987 (3'04") and almost double the speed of what I still think of as one of the most marvellous Dufay records ever, directed by David Munrow in 1973 (5'07"). Not all the movements sound quite so hectic but most are the quickest available, and to my ears one consequence is that rather too much of the detail is swallowed. Some may also find that the lack of space rather trivialises the music and occasionally results in the singers putting too much effort into the sound. But it does at the same time make it easier for the long phrases to hang together and for the movements to come across as coherent music units.
There are many other recordings of all these works, but surely all serious collectors will want this issue of all four works, beautifully sung, beautifully recorded, beautifully presented and always exhilarating.