This Hyperion issue from the Binchois Consort brings together a cappella music from medieval England inspired by devotional texts mostly associated with the Virgin Mary, an on-going project that explores artistic parallels between polyphony and alabaster sculpture, a worthy idea.
While Andrew Kirkman doesn’t avoid a miscellany approach, he intersperses pieces around the four surviving sections of Walter Frye’s Missa Flos regalis (with a speculative addition), grouping the texts into four distinct areas that reference Mary as intercessor against plague, her Annunciation, Assumption and Coronation, and her royal lineage. The ‘Gloria’ is sung with spacious elegance, unlike the faster tempo adopted by the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM, but compares favourably with The Clerkes (Signum). I particularly enjoyed the ‘Credo’ with its nicely shaped phrases and deft singing. Even if the only familiar name amongst this collection is probably John Dunstable, The Binchois Consort will persuade you to further your acquaintance with lesser-known luminaries such as John Bedyngham and John Plummer – their music is fascinating.
The Binchois Consort performs with stylishness and a real feeling for this period, mostly adopting broad tempos that underline the music’s natural ebb and flow, melodic invention and austere grandeur, and also encompasses jubilation, warmth and touching intimacy. Equally remarkable is ‘Superno nunc emittitur’ by Bedyngham, notable for one juicy harmonic collision that catches you unawares. It’s a gem. No such dissonance colours Plummer’s ‘Anna mater matris Christie’; its florid upper-voice writing above a drone and block chords reveals a compositional approach that anticipates the work of the Tudor masters a century ahead.
As you become immersed in this group’s pure tone and commitment to bringing the past into the present, the riches within this release far outweigh any niggles, and the generous acoustics of Ascot Priory are effectively harnessed. Included in the handsome booklet is an erudite note, texts and enticing images.