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04 Jun 2008
Joye: Les plaintes de Gilles de Bins dit Binchois
The title of this recording “Joy: the Laments of Gilles Binchois” introduces a seeming contradiction, one that plays on a contemporaneous description of the composer as "pére de joyeusetè"—the father of joy—in tension with an affinity for melancholy in his works.
Björn Schmelzer proposes however that in the musical settings of laments “sorrow is transformed into sublime bliss—the secret of any lament of a high standard,” as Binchois’s surely were. In the creating of this conceptual frame for Binchois’s laments, Schmelzer and his generally excellent Graindelavoix, seek perhaps a new niche in which to place the composer’s works. Unsurprisingly, their performances also seek difference and distinction, be it with exaggerated tempo, degree of ornamentation and improvisation, or an especially “orchestrational” approach, switching and intertwining instrumental and vocal sounds with careful design.
The search for distinctive modes of performance invites us to hear things with new ears. The opening “Adieu mes tres belles amours,” for instance is sung unusually slowly. And the exaggerated pace, somewhat jolting at first hearing, gives the affection of the text (regrettably untranslated in the liner notes) greater gravity. One pauses anew to savor the detail of the musical syntax and one lingers with the sensuous elegance of Patrizia Hardt’s singing. There are trade-offs, however. The very slow speed seems to work against the level of note that was idiomatically the basic unit of motion, and thus may sound more like “slow motion” than expressive enhancement. Significantly, the slow speed well accommodates the florid ornamentation impressively added here by Hardt.. Yet, based on figuration in the Buxheimer Organ Book, the ornamentation sounds anachronistic in the vocal appropriation, and its degree of floridity seems to work against the affective dolor that inspired the choice of a slow speed in the first place.
In the extensive liner notes, Schmelzer writes of archetypal features of laments, including an “atmosphere which enables a kind of feminisation of feelings (high, ornamental or trembling voices, tears, etc.), absolutely impossible in a conventional social context.” The appeal to the “trembling voice” is amply apparent in the singing of Silvie Moors here. A skillful singer with a wide range of activity in jazz and folk styles, she has a tremulosity in her voice that is expressive, but also distracting for its associations with other styles. It is beautiful singing—the kind of sound we often encounter today in modern Celtic folk recordings—but a novel sound in this context. This again invites us to hear things anew—a good thing—but it may also court a degree of mannerism in the end.
Schmelzer gives much attention to vibrant and robust instrumental participation in the performance of many of the laments, again favoring an ornamental and improvisatory style. Occasionally this seems to have hijacked other priorities. For example, the rondeau “Esclave puist yl devenir” has only the refrain sung, while fiddles—a nice salute to the blind Castilian fiddle players at the Burgundian court—render the rest of the musical material. Orchestrationally interesting, it nevertheless runs rough-shod over the song as a textual event, rendering a significant portion of the text silent.
There is much beautiful singing in this anthology. The lament “Mon seul et souverain désir” is simply stunning, set to an unsually low pitch that wraps the tone in a veil of dark profundity. This presages sounds we associate with Ockeghem, who likely studied with Binchois, and whose lament on the death of Binchois is the concluding chanson of the recording.
“Joye” will assuredly be of interest to devotees of early Renaissance music. Some of the performances perhaps try too hard to achieve difference, but in this we also sense a gratifying dynamism in the performance tradition: that, too, is something about which we can be joyful.