Beneath the Northern Star

The rise of English polyphony 1270-1430
The Orlando Consort
CDA 68132
Alanus, Byttering, Chirbury, Damett, Dunstaple, Excetre, Gervays, Power & anon

Setting aside my objection to the ‘Northern Star’ reference – there was ground-breaking polyphony of superlative quality being composed at this time further north in the British Isles – this CD is a useful look at the roots of English polyphony. It throws a new spotlight on some unfamiliar and mainly anonymous English music from the period immediately prior to the Old Hall Manuscript, although the notes are vexingly vague about the sources of this earliest repertoire.

I have often had reservations about the sound the Orlando Consort produces, and here too particularly with the earliest repertoire there is an annoying degree of vibrato in the inner voices, while the music seems to be divided between ‘sweet’ music, which receives gentle performances, and ‘lively’ music, which is given altogether rougher treatment. There are entire pieces here where the blend is never truly established, and I find it hard to tolerate this, let alone begin to enjoy it. Having said that, there is a general clarity of articulation and a pleasing parity of balance in more animated sections. With the slightly later repertoire from Old Hall onwards, the situation is generally happier, and the expected music of Power and Dunstaple is complemented with less familiar repertoire by Byttering, Gervays, Damett and Alanus. This is an informative survey of the roots of English polyphony, but to judge it at the highest level, I do have reservations about some of the performances. I know that the Orlando Consort has a dedicated and enthusiastic following, and their fans will not hesitate to invest in this CD, and a fair proportion of the works here are simply not available elsewhere.

D. James Ross