Collection: La Fête de l’Âne

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COMPOSERS: Rene Clemencic
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi Suite
WORKS: The Feast of Fools
PERFORMER: Clemencic Consort/René Clemencic
CATALOGUE NO: HMT 7901036 ADD Reissue (1980)

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These two discs give us a glimpse of music in early French drama. The Clemencic recording draws on the ‘theatre’ of the liturgy by reconstructing the ribald ‘Fools’ Mass’, allowed once a year on New Year’s Day. The Mass begins with the Kyrie asini, appropriately accompanied by the fulsome braying of an ass, and is helped along with a whole cutlery drawer of bangs, clashes and ‘noises off’.

When we get to the Graduale Bacchi, in praise of drinking, the music is accompanied by the sound of many bottles being uncorked (props which, presumably, it was not difficult for this French group to acquire). This reissued 1980 recording is great fun, and is more abandoned than Philip Pickett’s 1992 version for L’Oiseau-Lyre, though Pickett provides more items and full translations of the texts (essential for grasping the parodies and jokes).

Hesperus is an American group, and its disc of early 16th-century chansons is really a tribute to the great American musicologist Howard M Brown, who first collected together the songs mentioned in French plays. One in three of these items is presented by instruments alone. The playing by Hesperus is often pleasing and artful, especially in the dance pieces by Attaignant.

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Elsewhere, such as in the scolding complaints of Compère’s ‘Lordault’ or in Janequin’s frankly filthy ‘M’y levay par un matin’, the constant display of the elegance of its musicianship is perhaps inappropriate. But this same skill does demonstrate that some of the anonymous works, such as the sweet and subtle ‘L’amour de moy’, are of very high quality indeed. Anthony Pryer