Dufay Mass for St Anthony of Padua
These two recordings are welcome indeed, on several counts. For starters, it isn’t often that a major work of the fifteenth century is twice resurrected within the space of a couple of months. The appearance on disc of the Mass for St Anthony of Padua introduces a period of Dufay’s career that has mostly gone unrepresented on CD. That is basically because very little sacred music appears to survive from the middle of Dufay’s career (c1440-50). I say ‘appears’, because there does exist a large quantity of anonymous music that modern scholarship has tentatively attributed to him (some of this can be heard on the Binchois Ensemble’s recording of the Ecce ancilla Mass, Virgin Classics, 11/94). In the case of the St Anthony Mass, DF’s attribution to Dufay (through quotations in a sixteenth-century theoretical treatise that names the composer) seems very secure, and the work will fascinate those who are familiar with the Dufay of the late four-voice Masses (such as Ecce ancilla, Ave regina, Se la face ay pale and
Another cause for celebration is the high quality of both recordings: such excellence in rivalry would have been difficult to imagine even ten years ago. It is deeply heartening that such different aesthetic standpoints may be defended equally convincingly. The newly formed Binchois Consort employs countertenors on the top line, with two singers to each line. That corresponds pretty closely to the nine men with whom Dufay is thought to have sung the Mass in Padua in 1450. Andrew Kirkman’s interpretation may come as a surprise to some listeners on account of the brisk tempos and very energetic approach to phrasing. This last point I find particularly refreshing, given the current English fashion for objective, nearly uninflected interpretation. The Binchois Consort’s vigour leads to inevitable rough edges here and there, but the payoff in terms of energy is ample compensation: listen to the breathtaking rhythmic verve at the Verse in the Gradual, for instance.
Alexander Blachly’s approach is altogether more equable and placid, closer perhaps in spirit to the Dufay for the four-voice Masses. It is considerably slower than Kirkman’s, and aesthetically closer to the uninflected style I alluded to earlier. That is partly because Pomerium use sopranos on the top line of most movements (and have done from their first recordings in the early 1970s – which, by the way, should be reissued). Despite a slightly higher pitch-standard, the lie of the music is lower in the women’s range than it is for Kirkman’s countertenors, hence the smoother sound. Blachly also underlines the stylistic shift in the Offertory and the Communion (for which he doubts Dufay’s authorship) by knocking the pitch downwards, and reassigning the top voice to men. Though I am not convinced by the logic of that decision, Blachly’s Offertory is very beautiful indeed. Kirkman’s interpretation of the magical moment at the words “his horn [shall be exalted]” seems strangely muted, whereas Pomerium, though no less solemn, is justifiably radiant. Elsewhere, however, I miss Kirkman’s greater sensitivity to the setting’s manifold touches of character, and the more satisfying balance (to my ear) resulting from an all-male cast. One can hope that The Binchois Consort will continue in their exploration of the music of this period: Busnois, Ockeghem and Binchois himself, deserve such treatment.
It seems unfair to conclude by choosing one of these recordings over the other, since arguably they are equally successful at projecting their own interpretation. No, the real winners here are the listener and Dufay himself, one of whose masterpieces is now restored for all to hear. I urge everyone to discover it. '