The fifteenth-century French composer Guillaume Dufay straddles the musical boundary between the Medieval and the Renaissance. Working in France and Italy, writing secular and sacred music, sometimes to his own verses, he seems to have had a finger in every musical pie, and this evening’s concert by the Orlando Consort illustrated his pivotal role in the evolution of later Renaissance styles.

Members of the Orlando Consort
Members of the Orlando Consort

To set Dufay’s music in context, the Orlando Consort opened with Eya dulcis / Vale placens, written by Jean Tapissier at the end of the fourteenth-century. This demanding work dispelled any lingering belief that medieval music is simple, consisting as it did of two simultaneous sets of words, each with their own different and complicated rhythms, and ending with some startling dissonances. Later, the consort performed a piece by Dufay’s contemporary Ockeghem (S’elle m’amera / Petite Camusette) which retained the same style: an exciting jumble of words, and a beautiful florid top line for alto Matthew Venner, which he seemed to sing without ever stopping for breath.

Dufay’s Missa Sancti Jacobi was full of references to the great Medieval pilgrimages to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. Unusually, Dufay wrote polyphonic settings for the “Propers” – those parts of the mass that are unique to the particular day – as well as the more familiar “Ordinary” sections (Kyrie, Gloria, etc), including here a majestic Alleluia movement whose lovely words are a prayer to St James, “shining star of the Spanish”. In this and several other works, the Orlando Consort opted to sing with Medieval French pronunciation, which I found fascinating, and the familiar words of the Latin mass text suddenly demanded a new level of concentration.

A farewell lament to the wines, legumes and women of Northern France took us, with Dufay, abroad to Italy. Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys, sung with feeling by the three lower voices, was tender and wistful, and was very much in the Medieval melodic tradition. This sample of Dufay’s Italian music felt immediately more modern. In his setting of Plutarch’s poem Vergene bella, the voices worked more closely together, on the same set of words, in a fresh, lyrical style that anticipates the Italian madrigal.

This year, the Orlando Consort moved from the smallish hall in Durham University’s music department to St Oswald’s church, a venue that is acoustically much better-suited to their sound. Matthew Venner’s extraordinary alto voice particularly benefited from the move. I enjoyed his flowing duet sections with Mark Dobell in the Missa Sancti Jacobi and the anguish of his top line in Dufay’s lament on the fall of Constantinople Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae. The French words for this grief-stricken piece may have been written by Dufay himself, and he sets them against a stark Latin text from the book of Lamentations about the fall of Jerusalem.

The concert closed with a selection of sacred works. Victimae paschali alternated elegant polyphony with sections of plainsong sung by baritone Donald Greig, and his final phrase “Victorious king, have pity on us” faded away beautifully. There followed two contrasting settings of the ever-popular motet Ave Regina coelorum, the first a relatively simple setting that glowed with light, and the second a more elaborate polyphonic version. Dufay’s lavish treatment of the phrase “super omnes speciosa” - “more beautiful than all others” – pre-empts later Renaissance sacred polyphony, particularly the word-painting of Victoria.

Performances by The Orlando Consort combine their formidable knowledge and musicianship with an infectious enthusiasm for early music. No matter how fiendishly tricky the writing, they smile and keep eye-contact with the audience throughout, and recognising that this repertoire is unfamiliar, they made themselves available to answer questions after the concert, making us feel like very welcome guests in the distant world of the fifteenth century.

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