This CD is a real gem, consisting of magnificent music written for Henry V and VI and “the princely chapels” of the House of Lancaster. Most of us will be aware of Henry V through the lens of Shakespeare’s play, in which he is depicted as a silver-tongued and glamorous thug; in reality, both he and his gentler son Henry VI were major patrons of the best composers of the early fifteenth century, arguably the period when British music was at its zenith. The Henrys seem to have been very discerning in their musical tastes; all the named pieces on this CD, whether by remembered composers like the incomparable Cantuarian Leonel Power, or Walter Frye, or the almost unknown Damett or Sturgeon, are extremely fine. Impressive, too, is the gloriously resonant faburdened Asperges me chant, a sound we think of today as quintessentially mediaeval. Embedded in the program, though, is one of the truly great works of anonymous music, the Missa Quem malignus spiritus, with its cantus firmus tenor based on the melody to the quem malignus antiphon text found in the Wollaton Antiphonal manuscript, recently subject to a conservation project at the University of Nottingham, from which project the current CD emerged. This setting of the ordinary of the mass with its troped Kyrie is at least the equal of the magnificent, roughly contemporary, and also anonymous Missae Caput and Veterem Hominem, which were recorded for Hyperion by Gothic Voices and have recently been reissued on Helios. We are used to thinking of earlier music as being briefer—albeit often more complex—than the products of the high Ars Perfecta, particularly the prolix Obrecht, but the five sections of the Missa Quem malignus total fully 34-odd minutes, the Kyrie alone running to seven; on this recording, following modern practice, they are separated by smaller motets and plainchant.
Much as I enjoy and admire the singing of Hyperion’s other early music vocal groups, Gothic Voices, Cinquecento, the Cardinall’s Musick, and the Brabant Ensemble (sometimes…), the Binchois Consort led by Andrew Kirkman remain firmly my favourites, not least for their several lovely Dufay CDs. This newest example of their “marriage of first-rate scholarship and high-quality musicianship” is at least as good as anything they have produced so far, and is indispensible for anyone even mildly interested in the music of the fifteenth-century. A five-star issue.