Saturday, January 22, 2011

Busnois: Missa O Crux Lignum

Antoine Busnois
Missa O Crux Lignum
Orlando Consort

ClassicsToday rating 10/10.

In 1993, the ensemble Pomerium offered a similar program of works by Antoine Busnois (or, Busnoys), a composer then virtually unknown to most listeners. The 15th-century Burgundian musician wrote in both sacred and secular forms, and two masses, eight motets, and several dozen songs are among his surviving works. What makes Busnois so special is his melodic facility and rhythmic interest, especially notable in the chansons, which are full of lively syncopation and catchy phrasing, and his affinity for unlabored, smoothly flowing counterpoint in the sacred settings, which usually are based on a cantus firmus chant melody. The four voices of the Orlando Consort--countertenor, two tenors, and baritone--obtain what we must assume is a reasonably authentic period sound, and the singers take care to preserve the individuality of each voice rather than try for the kind of pure, uniform timbre characteristic of some other similar groups, such as the Hilliard Ensemble.

My only reservation here is that Robert Harre-Jones' countertenor is so prominent relative to the other voices, and Busnois' music is so texturally undifferentiated that over the course of several tracks the ear wants either a rest or something more varied in terms of voicing or tone quality. In some respects, I prefer Pomerium's warmer, more refined, mixed-voices realization, although their recording is no longer available from the now-defunct Dorian label. Nevertheless, you can't fault these performances, which capitalize on the edgy rhythms in the chansons and make the most of the artful opposition of the countrapuntal lines in the Mass--and you certainly have to be happy with the clear, detailed, vibrant sound, perfectly captured at St. Mary's Parish Church in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland. [1/26/2005]

--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com