Agricola: A Secret Labyrinth: Missa Guazzabuglio; Salve regina

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COMPOSERS: Agricola
LABELS: Sony Vivarte
WORKS: A Secret Labyrinth: Missa Guazzabuglio; Salve regina
PERFORMER: Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
CATALOGUE NO: SK 60760
Alexander Agricola (d1506) does not figure strongly in music history books. This is because his music did not point to the future, but exquisitely summed up the past, and also because he cannot be identified with any particular ‘school’. But he was one of the last and best of the medieval composers and, when he took leave from the French court, the King himself sent a letter to Florence imploring for his return.

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The Naxos disc gives us a mix of instrumental and vocal versions of his songs. There is some nicely alert solo singing in the ecstatic and seemingly endless melody of ‘S’il vous plaist’, and the instrumentalists turn ‘Guarde vostre visage’ into an enjoyable parade of piquant and buzzy little romps. But elsewhere (as in ‘Ay je rien fet’) sonorities and tunings can be out of focus. The Paul Van Nevel disc is more experimental: it is a radical attempt to reconstruct the vocal ornaments and startling changes of harmony improvised by the original performers of this music. The result in ‘Dung aultre amer’ is murky, but the complex, flowering lines of ‘De tous biens playne’ and the heart-stopping harmonic shifts in the Sanctus show us a marvellous world beyond the written notes. Yet more evidence that history as it was lived was almost certainly not the same as the history we are told. Anthony Pryer