Dufay Spectacle

The Dufay Spectacle
Motets and chansons
Gothic Voices
Linn Records 568

Dufay remains one of the most iconic & intimidating composers in the Western tradition, working across a wide array of genres, while combining & transforming a variety of regional styles. So in some sense, a Dufay secular program is going to be "mixed." However, here we find alongside seventeen chansons & three instrumental transcriptions, five motets: This sort of combination is not always my favorite, but not only are these motets (certainly) secular, but this kind of program also takes on some similarities to those devoted to Machaut, Dufay's luminary peer from almost exactly a century prior. And so that is the basic viewpoint from which I have come to appreciate it.

What is perhaps harder to explain is the persistence of instrumental transcriptions (in this case from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch) within programs devoted to Dufay's songs: They appear on the classic Complete Secular Music, as well as on e.g. what had been the most recent program devoted to Dufay's chansons, that by Diabolus in Musica. This is a consequence of the 20th century publication history of Dufay's secular music, an aspect of contingent choices that — for unknown reasons — continue to seem inescapable. That said, the transcriptions are also enjoyable.

Although it's the motets that are already found in the extensive Cantica Symphonia set, making the chansons in far greater need of a revised & up to date interpretation, it's once again the (isorhythmic) motet tracks that are the most striking on the (present) album: Whereas it doesn't likely reflect historical practice, the mezzo duets in the upper voices here are often particularly dazzling. Moreover, whereas I was initially put off by what seemed like the haste of the performance, the crisp & fast execution becomes increasingly believable & appreciated. (After all, a process of "santification" is well established, by which highly regarded works are performed more & more slowly by subsequent generations. This album reverses that trend.) The inclusion of instrumental forces backing the voices in the motets is also uncharacteristic of Gothic Voices (and indeed more evocative of Cantica Symphonia, & so derivative in that sense), but works judiciously to fine effect here. And despite that I've had more to say about the motets, the included chansons are given (mostly) excellent performances as well: One might quibble with aspects such as performing partial versions etc., but the program develops nicely nonetheless.

Both the performance & program, although different from what I might have chosen in isolation, are thus excellent, making for the best overall introduction to Dufay (at least outside of his mass output) so far. It's complex music, across genres, interpreted in a precise & lively manner. (Indeed, even the accompanying materials are of excellent quality, from the printing itself to the inclusion of lyrics, etc. This cannot always be assumed from even noteworthy ensembles!) The theme of this program is a New Year's Day celebration, although I'm not sure that a theme is really needed... and I hope that Gothic Voices will consider doing another Dufay album. (After all, although Machaut & Dufay appeared together in many of their early albums, the former still far outpaces the latter in their overall discography.)

To renaissance secular list

Todd M. McComb
Updated: 28 May 2019