Barbireau: Missa Faulx perverse

Barbireau: Mass / Motets
Beauty Farm
Fra Bernardo 238 8771

Barbireau was a unique composer of the era, in terms of composing free polyphony. Unfortunately, he also left very little music — aside from that on this program, there's another mass cycle, and three secular songs — apparently due to its destruction in Antwerp in 1556. However, Barbireau also died relatively young, and so it's unclear how large his output may have been. In any case, these pieces, especially the 4-voice mass cycle, are shrouded in (musical) mystery.

The only really comparable composer for Barbireau stylistically is the older Ockeghem. That's in terms of the free counterpoint, the basic sweep & majesty of his work. The relation seems especially clear here in the motet Osculetur me (with its low tessitura & long sense of line...). Barbireau's thematizing may have been rather different though, as he was also known to have taken up many of the humanist currents of the era, suggesting a philosophically different sort of music (perhaps), including in this enigmatic mass cycle....

It's clearly a unique piece, in hypodorian, involving a variety of confusing relations (& so ficta). These are also masterfully articulated here, in a real tour-de-force from Beauty Farm. (What makes the performance seem convincing, if it's indeed music designed to bewilder? Because the interpretation opens up the work, yielding a wealth of bizarre yet coherent detail....)

So why not a more enthusiastic reaction? As with many other writers, I find myself thinking "What if..." with Barbireau, to be sure, but I'm also not sure how effective this somber cycle is in the end. It seems almost a curiosity — but then I wonder if the sort of emptiness (kenosis?) it projects is intentional & potent in its own way....

(And the other cycle, Missa Virgo parens Christi for five voices, not recorded here, seems to be more of a "virtuoso" showpiece, although with a truncated Agnus section — sometimes striking in its homophony, including in high textures, even light & almost dance-like at times, i.e. completely opposite the Missa Faulx perverse here.)

In any case, here was a composer who was still able to rise above the standardization of polyphonic practice that was encroaching on his era, even as he ended up (what with their subsequent destruction...) leaving few works. What seem to be his two most potent pieces — both featuring dark textures — are thus given tremendous readings here. (The German-styled Kyrie paschale doesn't do as much for me....)

And the Missa Faulx perverse has continued to make a stronger impression with me over time.... There doesn't seem to be anything by other composers to compare, and the model (treated non-systematically) is unknown. Maybe it's actually exploring & rendering something fundamental about this musical style, much like some of Ockeghem's cycles.... And too bad that none of Barbireau's contemporaries seem to have taken up his ideas.

This album was named my EM Record of the Year for 2023.

To renaissance sacred list.

Todd M. McComb
Updated: 2 January 2024