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Ensemble Gilles Binchois Timor Mortis

Music Review: Ensemble Gilles Binchois – ‘Timor Mortis’

Excavating and performing early music often involves a kind of detective work we might call cultural archeology. Ensemble Gilles Binchois, an eight-member choir from France led by tenor Dominique Vellard, has dusted off the Missa pro defunctis of composer Charles d’Argentil for their album Timor Mortis, out now on Evidence Classics. The recording is as enlightening as it is beautiful.

Not much is known about d’Argentil. He lived from approximately 1500 to 1557, which puts him a generation after the great Josquin and two after Johannes Ockeghem, on whose work rests much of what followed in early Renaissance sacred and secular choral music. Unlike his contemporary Claudin de Sermisy, three of whose Lamentations also appear on the album, d’Argentil doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (not yet, anyway).

However much or little we know of a composer’s biography, in their music we can see a little into their mind. We can detect their influences and judge where they fit in (or out of) a tradition; and on another level, we can at least try to divine something about their inner life.

Ensemble Gilles Binchois 'Timor Mortis' album cover

As performed here, the eight-part Missa pro defunctis – the earliest extant polyphonic setting of the Requiem Mass – has an emotional heft that speaks across the centuries. Modest counterpoint and rich sonority, together with relics of plainchant, characterize the music of the French composers of this period. Musicologists can tell us precisely how, technically, d’Argentil used and advanced the methods of his time to express the feelings and evoke the religious imagery of the Requiem Mass. But we as listeners know individual inspiration when we hear it.

This beautifully produced recording gives us d’Argentil’s eight-movement Mass, sung with impeccable technique and dynamics by the two basses, four tenors, and two countertenors of Ensemble Gilles Binchois under Dominique Vellard’s direction. We do know that the composer was a Carthusian monk employed as a bass cantor by the papal chapel in Rome for a number of years; so we can posit that his own vocal skills informed his writing for multipart choir.

The Sermisy Lamentations that follow reveal a more varied emotional palette than d’Argentil employed in the Missa; the terrible sadness of Lectio III contrasts with the lighter, almost sunny touch of Lectio I, for example.

Rounding out the set is the motet “Salve Regina misericordiæ” by Jehan Barra, another contemporary who composed motets and masses (and about whom it’s difficult to find biographical information).

Despite all the obscurity that time imposes on figures of the distant past, Timor Mortis superbly embodies these composers’ aesthetic. It’s especially gratifying to have such a fine recording of the Missa pro defunctis, enabling us to envision the life and mind of an unfamiliar composer through his evident devotion to his art, and to the religious calling that evidently informed it.

Timor Mortis is out now on Evidence Classics.

The following video includes a live recording of some of the music, with an interview (in French) with Dominique Vellard.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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