In recent years the Eloquence label (which is proudly Australian) has broadened its scope considerably. Initial releases were of fairly mainstream repertoire in historic recordings but under the guidance of Series Manager Cyrus Meher-Homji Eloquence has blossomed into a genuinely adventurous reissue catalogue covering repertoire from the late mediaeval period to mid-twentieth century. Among the mediaeval releases is a remarkable project that was undertaken by Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke in 1979, a complete recording of the late-fifteenth century Chansonnier Cordiforme, the heart-shaped songbook. This set of three CDs exemplifies state-of-the-art early music performance of its time, and is to date the only complete recording of an entire fifteenth-century songbook—the songs are even performed in the original order. A deluxe facsimile of the score has also been issued, for those mediaevalists with deep pockets. The songbook itself is, as its name implies, shaped like a single isosceles heart in such a way that, when opened for use, it takes the shape of a larger heart with each musical line laid out in one corner of the resulting double-page—there is a reproduction of an open page on the cover of the CDs, illustrating what a beautiful work of art the original is.
The songbook dates from the 1470s, and the composers represented include the cream of the late-mediaeval period: Bedyngham, Busnoys, Dufay, Dunstable, Ghizeghem, Ockeghem and Regis, and there are also many exquisite anonymous songs among the 43 tracks. The songs are performed in combinations of voice and instruments, sometimes one voice and two instruments, sometimes vice versa—the majority are three-part textures. Included in the booklet is a remarkably detailed and scholarly commentary by Dufay scholar David Fallowes, who is credited as having provided “Edition and Project Supervision”.
There are many familiar names among the perfomers: Emma Kirkby, Margaret Philpot, Christopher Page, and Rooley himself—it is salutary to be reminded where these luminaries started their careers, and that the excellent Gothic Voices are a Consort of Musicke spin-off group. But it does emphasise that the Chansonnier Cordiforme represents a starting-point; after the early efforts of David Munrow and Thomas Binckley, this was the very beginning of the real renaissance of early music performance. Knowing this, I approached these recordings with a degree of hesitation, not wanting to be disappointed; after all, very little in Classical Music has changed as much over the last thirty years as the quality of early music performance. Fortunately, the musical aspects of this set stand up extremely well, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying Rooley & Co.’s dedicated and affectionate performances of this lovely music. The recordings were, admittedly, made in a studio—they predate the revelation that this music needs to be recorded in appropriate acoustics—but the sound is quite acceptable. Given the ridiculously low price, this is an almost mandatory purchase for anyone interested in the music that preceded Josquin and the homogenising ars perfecta.