Orpheus Returns with John Dunstable

If you’re a classical music lover of a certain age, you probably remember the Musical Heritage Society. MHS was kind of a Book-of-the-Month Club for music. Each month you received a booklet with their offerings. Some recordings were set to automatically ship to you if you didn’t return the form.

MHS offered a lot of licensed releases from several labels, both large and small. All were repackaged in plain black-and-white record sleeves (later CD booklets). But MHS also produced its own recordings.

Some appeared under the MusicMasters label. But many remained out of print — until now. The Orpheus Label has been resurrected. Their 2,000+ recordings made or purchased by the MHS means there’s a lot to choose from.

And the first round of releases is pretty strong. The label will be rolling out complete Hummel chamber music, and complete organ symphonies by Widor and Vierne. And historic recordings like this.

Denis Stevens was an early champion of early music. This release, originally recorded in 1961, is significant in several ways.

It was produced as a tribute to Manfred Bukofzer. He was a major figure in musicology and the preeminent authority on Dustable’s music. It also was intended to mark the 200th anniversary of Dunstable’s death in 1453. (There were some special broadcasts marking the event, but no recordings.)

John Dunstable was active in the first half of the 15th Century. His polyphonic works have a distinctive sound. Dunstable didn’t follow the norms of the Netherlandish School, the standard for sacred music.

Instead, he arrived at his own solutions for voice-leading and dissonance resolution. And those solutions make his music sound fresh and interesting even today.

The performances are both enthusiastic and a little loose. There’s an energy to early early music recordings that have gone missing over time. The overall sound is a little closed-in, with the extreme highs and lows missing. But in the end, that doesn’t matter.

There is so little John Dunstable available, it’s great to have this back in print. And it’s now a historic recording in its own right.

A great start to a label relaunch.

John Dunstable: Sacred and Secular Music
Eileen Poulter, soprano; Russel Oberlin, countertenor
Michael Brimer, organ
The Ambrosian Singers; Denis Stevens, director

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