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Recordings

John Dunstable: Sweet Harmony:  Masses and Motets
28 Aug 2006

DUNSTABLE: Sweet Harmony — Masses and Motets

The music of John Dunstable embodies many of the characteristics that so dramatically set the music of the emerging Renaissance apart from its Medieval forebears.

John Dunstable: Sweet Harmony: Masses and Motets

Tonus Peregrinus; Antony Pitts, Director

Naxos 8.557341[CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

The fullness of sound, the sweet amenity of full triads and vertical thirds, and a more highly controlled sense of consonance all combine to create a novel sound world. The novelty of the sound, however, did not reject all continuities: cantus firmus technique, isorhythm, and the genres of motet and mass movement remain integral to the early fifteenth-century style and remind us that even where innovation is pronounced, it is often couched in forms that are familiar.

Sweet Harmony, the present recording by Antony Pitts and Tonus Peregrinus, in part plays on that very idea, for while Dunstable’s music is generally well known, Pitts has compellingly taken that familiar repertory and interpreted it in ways that invite us to hear it anew. This takes several shapes. One is the amount and nature of the musica ficta that he employs. Musica ficta refers to performer-added accidentals, sung to make voice leading smoother and vertical sonorities more agreeable. Pitts applies his accidentals liberally, with the result that his readings are perhaps more harmonically colorful than is often the case.

A second example has to do with the register in which he performs some of the works. Three mass movements, a Sanctus and a Credo-Sanctus pair on the chant Da gaudium premia are sung in the treble range, a notably higher tessitura than usual. The unexpected shift in range is stunning in its effects. To the imaginative, it imbues the Sanctus movements with an angelic aura, resonant with the tradition that the Sanctus is the song of the seraphim. Moreover, the register renders the counterpoint particularly clear; because of the shift in register, the sound takes on new degrees of brightness that allow the intertwining of lines to be heard in a more transparent way than is often the case with more resonant lower voices. And additionally, the shift sends the top treble into the extreme high range—often thrillingly so here—and in so doing presages the sound of the Eton Choirbook later in the century.

A final bit of innovation surfaces in the recording’s last work, a canonic Gloria recently reconstructed by Margaret Bent. Pitts adds to the canon a repeating ostinato in the form of a descending scale through the octave. While lower-voice repeating patterns have much precedence—the liner notes cite the example of the well-known Sumer is icumen in—the full octave descent seems anachronistic, both in its melody and also occasionally in its harmonic implications. Admittedly, in this case the innovation is difficult not to like, but it sounds perhaps more of Pitts than Dunstable.

“Sweet Harmony” offers rich interpretations of foundational Renaissance works. The interpretations are sensitive and creative, and also, in no small measure, refreshing.

Steven Plank

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