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Heinrich ISAAC (c1450/55 - 1517): "Henricus Isaac nel tempo di Lorenzo de' Medici & Maximilian I, 1450-1519"

La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Hespèrion XXI
Dir: Jordi Savall

rec: Dec 23, 2016 & Jan 19, 2017, Cardona, Castell de Cardona
AliaVox - AVSA9922 (© 2017) (76'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/S/Cat; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/I/S/Cat
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Palle, palle a 4; Parce, Domine a 4; La morra a 3; En l'ombre/Une musque/Sustinuimus pacem a 4; Innsbruck, ich muß dich lassen a 4; Hor'e di maggio a 4; A la battaglia a 4; Quis dabit capiti meo aquam a 4; Sancti spiritus assit nobis gratia a 4; Angeli, Archangeli a 6; La mi la sol a 4; Optime divino/Da pacem/Sacerdos et pontifex a 6; Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis a 4; [O Welt, ich muß dich lassen] a 4; [Christus, filius Dei] a 6

[CRC, soli] Ingeborg Dalheim, soprano; Kristin Mulders, mezzo-soprano; Pascal Bertin, David Sagastume, alto; Victor Sordo, David Hernández, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone; Christian Immler, bass
[CRC, tutti] Carmit Natan, soprano; Maria Chiara Gallo, mezzo-soprano; Carlos Monteiro, Andrés Miravete, tenor; Simón Millán, baritone; Pieter Stas, bass
[HesXXI] Pierre Hamon, recorders; Jean-Pierre Canihac, cornett; Béatrice Delpierre, chalemie, recorder, shawm; Harry Ries, Aymeric Fournes, Daniel Lassalle, sackbut; Josep Borras, dulcian; Jordi Savall, Sergi Casademunt, Imke David, Lorenz Duftschmid, Philippe Pierlot, viola da gamba; Enrike Solinis, lute; Michael Behringer, organ; Pedro Estevan, bells, percussion

The music industry moves in mysterious ways. Heinrich Isaac was one of the most celebrated composers of his time, and long after his death his music was still printed and performed, sometimes in arrangements - a clear token of appreciation. But only a disappointingly small number of his compositions are available on disc. On ArkivMusic we find a pretty large number of pieces which have been recorded, but most of them are available on only one disc - often an anthology with pieces by various composers - and they show that the interest in his output is rather one-sided. It is mostly the instrumental pieces, which have been recorded, and his most famous piece is his German song Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen. But as his oeuvre is very large and only a few discs have been entirely devoted to him, one has to conclude that modern performers and record companies have done him great injustice.

Isaac was from Flanders or Brabant and was born somewhere between 1450 and 1455. In 1484 he is first mentioned, in the capacity as court composer in Innsbruck. By 1484 he was in Florence, where he was in the service of the Medicis. He apparently always remained in contact with this powerful family, even after the latter were banished from Florence in 1494. Two years later Isaac entered the service of Emperor Maximilian I. When the Medicis returned to Florence and a member of the family was elected Pope as Leo X, they granted Isaac a pension.

It was a splendid idea of Jordi Savall to produce a disc devoted to this giant among the composers of the renaissance. Guido Magnano, in his liner-notes to a recording of the ensemble Cantica Symphonia, tells a story which bears witness to Isaac's versatility as a composer. "In a letter addressed to the Florentine ambassador to Rome, Lorenzo [de' Medici] indicated his intention of offering a collection of chansons to the Venetian ambassador with these words: 'If I knew what kinds he likes best, I could have served him better since Arrigo Isaac has composed these songs in different ways, both grave and sweet, and also capricious and ingenious. I shall send a selection from each style, and following the first 'tasting' I shall know which wine I shall need to serve.' In short, such was the variety and wealth of Isaac's compositions that Lorenzo was in a position to send an anthology as if it were a range of samples!"

That versatility comes perfectly off in this production. It is put together in the form of a biography: facts from Isaac's life are illustrated by his compositions, as far as possible. Obviously the first biographical fact is Isaac's birth. That is impossible to illustrate with his own music, so here we get Palle, palle, an instrumental piece that is called here 'fanfare of the Medicis'. It is a tribute to the dynasty which played a major role in the composer's life, from early in his career until his death. The title of this piece refers to the balls featured in the Medici coat of arms. The next item is also not biographical: the motet Parce, Domine is used to illustrate the death of Cosimo de' Medici in 1464, who was succeeded by his son Piero, and after the latter's death, by Lorenzo (1469). The text of the motet, not related to these events, is well suited to such occasions: "O Lord, spare your people, and do not sow ruin in the fields of your estate".

The Treaty of Picquigny, which brought the Hundred Years War to a close, is illustrated by the motet Sustinuimus pacem: "We looked for peace and did not find it". Notable is that it is based on two of Isaac's chansons. His move from Innsbruck to Florence is illustrated by the song Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen. It returns at the end of the programme in the form of a Lutheran contrafactum, with the text O Welt, ich muss dich lassen. Another well-known piece is A la battaglia, here referring to a conflict between Genoa and Florence in 1487. In 1492 Lorenzo de' Medici died, and here we hear the motet Quis dabit capiti meo aquum. This text, referring to words of the prophet Jeremiah, was perfectly suited to lament the death of a ruler: "Who will give water to my spring? Who will fill my eyes with tears that I might weep both night and day?" The text was from the pen of Lorenzo's favourite poet, Angelo Poliziano.

In the second half of the 1490s Isaac was in the service of Maximilian, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The motet Sancti spiritus assit nobis gratia was written for the opening of the Imperial Diet of Constance in 1507 and begins with a quotation from the sequence for Pentecost. As its first part ends with the phrase: "Thus may Emperor Maximilian guide us under your protection", this piece is well suited to illustrate Maximilian's election in 1493. The Diet of Worms in 1495 ordains "perpetual peace" between the nations of the Holy Roman Empire. We hear the motet Angeli, Archangeli: "Angels, archangels, thrones and dominations, (...), Virgins of the Lord, hermits, and all the saints, intercede on our behalf". In this piece Isaas makes use of the tenor from Gilles Binchois' chanson Comme femme desconfortée.

Isaac always remained in contact with the Medicis. In 1513 Giovanni de' Medici was elected Pope and crowned as Leo X. Optime Divino date munere pastor ovili is a motet on a Latin text in free poetry. It is based on two cantus firmi. "Together with a written text in elegant humanist Latin, the two plainchant melodies are performed simultaneously and are intended to express the close ties between the spheres of secular and spiritual power (i.e. the emperor and the Pope, respectively) that are united in their joint plea for peace and the defence against the Turks. However, the two protagonists are only indirectly mentioned in the text (for example, “medicus” and 'leo' alludes to Pope Leo X of the Medici family; while 'aquila' stands for emperor Maximilian I), thereby making the text easier to reuse" (Stefan Gasch in the liner-notes).

In 1517 Isaac died in his home in Florence. Circumdederit me gemitus mortis is from the large collection of liturgical music, which was published between 1550 and 1555 under the title of Choralis Constantinus. The text fits the occasion: "The sorrows of death surrounded me, the pains of hell encompassed me; and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, he heard my voice from his holy temple". The fact that this collection was printed more than thirty years after his death shows the appreciation of his music, as does the piece which ends the programme. Christus filius Dei is a contrafactum of his motet Virgo prudentissima quae pia. The original motet was written for Maximilian I in 1507, but this contrafactum was printed in 1538 in Nuremberg. The references to Maximilian and to the Virgin Mary were removed. The latter can be explained from the fact that Nuremberg joined the Reformation in 1524, the first imperial city to do so.

Considering the neglect of Isaac's music and the lack of recordings this production deserves a wholehearted welcome. It is to be hoped that it will bring Isaac's music to the attention not only of music lovers, but also of performers. As Savall usually works with the same singers and instrumentalists, his recordings always have a strong amount of consistency. There is a stylistic unity, which is too rare in recordings of early music. There are no singers with an incessant vibrato, and as a result the voices blend perfectly. There is also a good balance between the voices and the instruments. There are only a couple of issues. The first is that Savall uses a pretty large ensemble throughout. "Given the considerable formal grandeur and rich polyphonic complexity of some of the motets we have selected (...) and the often exceptional occasions on which his works were performed (coronations of emperors, imperial Diets, etc.), we decided to use quite a large choir and orchestra: a vocal ensemble of 8 soloist singers and 6 ripieno singers, and an instrumental ensemble of 13 instruments (including 6 wind instruments, 4 viols, organ, lute and percussion)", Savall writes in the booklet. That is fair enough, but also shows that the selection of pieces is a bit one-sided, obviously the result of the choice to present a musical biography. This only underlines the need for more recordings, which also include more 'average' pieces, written for the day-to-day liturgical practice. In any case, the large line-up in Inssbruck, ich muss dich lassen seems very questionable. (By the way, in his notes Savall refers to Christ ist erstanden, a piece which apparently was omitted during the production process.) The second issue is the use of bells: that may be appropriate in some of the pieces, but here it is used a little too often.

However, these are peanuts considering the importance of this production. This is a disc to treasure and lovers of the music of the renaissance should not miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

La Capella Reial de Catalunya
Hespèrion XXI

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