Here's another discovery - a very fine renaissance composer, mentioned in complimentary terms in music histories but scarcely heard for the past 450 years or so. Jean Maillard was a member of that great school of Franco-Flemish musicians of the post-Josquin generation, who collectively constitute one of the magnificent high points of European music. And, judging by the works on the present disc, his music was every bit as fine as that of his hitherto better-known contemporaries.
The most substantial work offered here is the parody Mass "Je suis déshéritée". Maillard was one of several renaissance composers to base a Mass upon this chanson, which was probably composed by Pierre Cadéac - a sad, graceful and memorable love song (I am deprived since I lost my friend/lover, he has left me so alone .....). Maillard's Mass is a lovely and impressive work, helpfully preceded on this CD by the chanson itself; we also hear, interspersed between the Mass movements, a considerable and well-organised selection of Maillard's motets. There are some very fine works among them, of which I especially liked "Laudate Dominum" (track 1), "Ascendo ad Patrem meum" (8), "Hodie Maria virgo" (12), "In pace" (13) and "In me transierunt" (16). For purposes of comparison, the Frenchman's music has something of the melodic beauty and contrapuntal lucidity of Clemens non Papa, and it seems to me entirely worthy of comparison with the likes of other contemporaries such as Arcadelt, De Rore, Crecquillon, Phinot or Manchicourt.
The Marian Consort are a very able ensemble of seven voices in all, singing one voice to a part. However, as with a previous disc from them (An Emerald in a Work of Gold: Music From the Dow), I found their treble-oriented vocal balance hard to listen to. Their two sopranos have very fine voices - one, however, with a bit too much vibrato in this music for my liking - but these two voices dominate the texture to such an extent that the lower voices just do not get a fair hearing. Presumably this must be the group's own choice and that of their director, countertenor Rory McCleery; or is it perhaps also a result of the voices being too closely recorded in an effort to minimise the occasional background rumble of traffic noise outside Oxford's Merton College Chapel?
Whatever the reasons, the result is a top-heavy, thin-textured overall vocal sound which I found wearisome to listen to. This is a great pity since, in all other respects, the singers of the Marian Consort bring impressive qualities to these performances including excellent period style, careful preparation, precision, commitment and sensitivity to the texts. McCleery's own notes on composer, music and background are excellent and informative, the booklet is attractively produced and illustrated, and in nearly all respects this is a highly enterprising and worthwhile project. But that thin vocal sound, instantly apparent from the very start of the first track, is pervasive and inescapable, hence the disappointing score of three stars.
Dedicated enthusiasts of Renaissance polyphony may well want the disc anyway, especially since Jean Maillard clearly made a significant contribution to the music of his era and, at the time of writing, there has been no other recording of his work. But, because of the problems I've described, I doubt if it will win many new converts to the Franco-Flemish cause. Other listeners may be able to get on with the sound better than I do; so, if you take a more lenient view, can readily live with that vocal balance and would care to tell me I'm writing nonsense, I'd welcome your comments!