Collection: Sweet Love, Sweet Hope

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Dufay and his Contemporaries
LABELS: ISIS
WORKS: Early fifteenth Century French & Italian Chansons by Dufay and his Contemporaries
PERFORMER: The Hilliard Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: CD 030

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The manuscript from which these songs are taken was probably written in the Venice region in the 1420s and 30s. It is not a beautiful object to look at, but its scribe (or scribes) had one outstanding gift – an astonishing ear for the greatest songs of the period, gathered from the most glittering courts in Europe.

This fascinating disc gives us a tiny but tantalising glimpse of the immense musical riches among the 325 items in that source. Dominating this recording are the wonderfully varied works of the great Burgundian composer Guillaume Dufay. The Hilliard Ensemble give especially entrancing accounts of his sorrowful but moving love songs, such as ‘Ma belle dame souveraine’ and ‘Par droit’.

Elsewhere they suffer a little from imbalance between the slightly raucous countertenor and the much softer lowest voice; this matters most in ‘Entre vous’, where the two voices are in canon, and in ‘Quel fronte’ where the harmony fails to mesh. (This last piece can be heard in better shape on the Gothic Voices’ album A Song for Francesca, on Hyperion.)

The works not by Dufay form a subcollection full of delights and surprises – Malbecque’s ‘Quant de la belle’ stands out for its profound and beautiful music, and the hilarious wit of ‘J’aim. Qui?’ by Paulet must have delighted the Duke of Berry, for whom he worked.

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Only two other recordings seriously overlap with this particular selection of pieces. One is the Naxos disc, Dufay Chansons, which is fun, but is sometimes so quirky as to defy comparison. The other is the recently reissued David Munrow set The Art of Courtly Love (Virgin Veritas) which is a serious rival, especially with its bravura approach to songs such as ‘Ce moys de may’. But the calm reassurance of the Hilliard Ensemble perhaps takes the prize in the end.