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"The St Emmeram Codex"

Stimmwercka; Léon Berben, organb
rec: August 2007, Klosterkirche Windberg-Bogena, Soest-Ostönnen, St Andreasb
Aeolus - AE-10023 (© 2008) (73'50")

anon: Credoa; Cristus surrexitb; En naturarum dominusa; O Maria virgo davidica/O Maria stella marisa; Sanctusa; Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Adyen ma tres belleb; Aliud esclapheb; Virgo rosa (after Cest assés)a; Johannes BRASSART (c1400/05-1455): Christi nutu sublimatoa; Crist ist erstanden (arr anon)a; Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Mille bon Joresb; Portugalera; Sequitur adhuc semel Dulongesuxb; Supremum est mortalibusa; John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): Quam pulchra esa; Hermann EDLERAWER (c1395-c1460): Verbum bonuma; Pierre FONTAINE (c1380-c1450), arr Oswald VON WOLKENSTEIN (c1376-1445): Vierhundert Jareb; Rudolf Volkhardt VON HÄRINGEN (c1395-1465) (attr): Levat autenticaa; Francesco LANDINI (c1325-1397): Kyrie (after Questa fanciulla)a; Arnold DE LANTINS (?-1432): Tota pulchra esa; Reginaldus LIEBERT (fl c1425-c1435): Agnus Deia; Leonel POWER (?-1445): Anima mea liquefactaa; Johannes ROULLET (fl c1435-c1445): Sanctusa; Peter SCHWEIKL (?-1466): Sanctusa; Johannes VAILLANT (fl c1360-c1390): Ad honorem (after Par maintes foys)a; Johannes WARING (fl c1440-c1460): Alle dei filiusa; Petrus WILHELMI (c1400-c1480): Presulem euphebeatum

Franz Vitzthum, alto; Gerhard Hölzle, Klaus Wenk, tenor; Marcus Schmidl, bass
with: Edzard Burchards, alto; Christof Hartkopf, baritone

The vocal quartet Stimmwerck was founded in 2001, and consists of four singers: alto, two tenors and bass. Their aim is to present music of the renaissance, and in particular music composed in the German-speaking world. They regularly cooperate with musicologists and search for little-known repertoire which is preserved in archives. The present disc is an excellent example of the exciting outcome of such a procedure.

The subject of this disc is one of the largest and most important musical manuscripts of the late Middle Ages. The St Emmeram Codex derives its name from the Benedictine monastery of St Emmeram in Regensburg, in whose library the manuscript was preserved. It was the private music collection of Hermann Pötzlinger, who worked briefly as the master of their school around the middle of the 15th century and spent the last years of his life in a house next to the school. "His library may be the largest personal collection of books from Central Europe in this period to have been preserved more or less in its entirety, for these manuscripts, including his music book (still usually known among musicians as the 'St Emmeram Codex'), are still kept together in the Bavarian State Library in Munich", Ian Rumbold writes in the booklet.

The manuscript contains no less than 255 compositions, some of which in plainchant, but the large majority written in sophisticated polyphony. They date from about half a century and were written in several parts of Europe, from England to Italy. This is reflected in the programme which has been put together for this disc. It shows the variety in character and compositional techniques used in the first half of the 15th century in several parts of Europe. Moreover, the manuscript contains pieces which have not been found in any other source. According to Ian Rumbold many of these pieces may never have been performed over 500 years.

The pieces are ordered according to the region where they have been composed. The first section is devoted to "works from the mainstream tradition of Northern Europe", as it is called, meaning that they were written in the region which is associated with the Franco-Flemish school of polyphony. Hardly anything is known about Roullet or Liebert; the best-known composer in this section is Gilles Binchois. One of the pieces sung here, Virgo rosa, was originally a secular chanson; the original text was replaced with a sacred Latin text by Pötzlinger. This procedure, known as contrafactum, was a very common practice at that time. Every section of the programme is closed by an arrangement for organ of a vocal piece. These arrangements are from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, and this collection contains many items whose vocal originals are part of the St Emmeram Codex. The first section ends with an arrangement of a chanson by Binchois, which also is part of the manuscript, but again with a sacred Latin text.

The next section is devoted to music which comes from Italy and France respectively, and of an earlier date than most other pieces. The composers are Landini and Vaillant, and both are again contrafacta. Landini's Questa fanciulla has turned into a Kyrie, whereas Vaillant's Par maintes foys has received the text Ad honorem astrorum regni regenti: "To the honour of Him who governs the kingdom of the stars". It is interesting that both text and music of the original contain imitations of birdsong and that these have been ingeniously preserved in the contrafactum. The anonymous motet O Maria virgo davidica is an original motet in which two texts are simultaneously sung.

Next follow pieces from Central Europe. Here we hear pieces with texts in the vernacular: Crist ist erstanden is sung first in a setting by Brassart, and then it appears in one of the versions of Levat autentica. And it returns in a version for organ from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch: Cristus surrexit. Hermann Edlerawer's Verbum bonum reflects two further practices of that time: the alternatim practice - the verses are alternately sung in plainchant and in polyphony - , and the use of fauxbourdon, in which the middle part duplicates the top part a fourth below.

Then a short section is devoted to Guillaume Dufay, the most famous composer of the time the manuscript was put together. Supremum est mortalibus is a motet which Dufay wrote for the arrival of King King Sigismund in Rome in May 1433, shortly before he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. But in this manuscript the text - which originally referred to Sigismund and to the Pope - is changed for a different occasion. This is another example of the way compositions could be changed and adapted to different occasions and circumstances. The next piece is another arrangement from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, Mille bon Jores. It isn't always easy to connect the titles in this organ book to the originals: here the title of the original is Mille bon jours.

The following piece by Arnold de Lantins, Tota pulchra es, shows another kind of adaption: the original was written for three voices, but later a fourth part was added, probably but not necessarily by the composer himself. Then come two of the few pieces which are notated in the manuscript in their original form, by John Dunstable (or Dunstaple) and Leonel Power respectively. The English style was widely admired and nicknamed 'the English countenance'.

Lastly there are some pieces from Eastern Europe which in many ways are very different from what was written elsewhere. En naturarum dominus is a so-called cantio from Bohemia and is the only two-part piece on this disc. Another anonymous piece, a setting of the Credo, is written in just one part, sung here unisono by the ensemble over a sung bourdon. The setting of the Sanctus is also anonymous, and although it is in plainchant, it has been harmonised, but is not-rhythmic.

This is a most fascinating disc. It demonstrates the variety in compositional styles and techniques in Europe in the first half of the 15th century, but also the various ways existing compositions were adapted and arranged to suit the objectives of a certain place and time. I have nothing but admiration for a project like this which shows how fruitful a close cooperation between musicologists, archives and performing musicians can be.

The outcome is also musically enthralling. The programme has been intelligently put together, and Stimmwerck gives excellent performances of the vocal items. There is some very fine singing here, but also from a stylistic viewpoint this is absolutely convincing. The Latin texts are pronounced the German way, which is certainly right, as the manuscript was compiled to be used in the south of Germany. It was a very good idea to add some pieces from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, not only for the musical reasons I mentioned before, but also because it brings some extra variety into the programme. Léon Berben delivers fine performances at one of the oldest organs in Germany.

The booklet is - as in all productions of Aeolus - exemplary: lucidly-written and informative programme notes and all lyrics with translations in English, French and German. Every reason to strongly recommend this disc to all lovers of medieval and renaissance music.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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