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CD reviews

Jacques Arcadelt and his time

[I] Jacques ARCADELT (1507 - 1568): "Estote fortes in bello - Sacred Works"
Josquin Capella
Dir: Meinolf Brüser
rec: March 16, 2010, Knechtsteden, Basilika
CPO - 777 763-2 (© 2012) (64'12")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Domine non secundum peccata nostra a 3-5; Estote fortes in bello a 6; Istorum est enim regnum caelorum a 7; Lamentationes Jeremiae (Res. Sordes eius a 4); Missa Ave regina caelorum a 5-6; O pulcherrima mulierum a 5; Pater noster a 8

Miriam Andersén, Axelle Bernage, soprano; Andreas Hirtreiter, Timothy Leigh Evans, tenor; Raitis Grigalis, Guido Heidloff, baritone; Willem Ceuleers, Joel Frederiksen, bass

[II] "Le Divin Arcadelt - Candlemas in Renaissance Rome"
Musica Contexta; The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble
Dir: Simon Ravens
rec: May 17 - 19, 2010, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Mapstead
Chandos - CHAN 0779 (© 2011) (68'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E

Jacques ARCADELT (1507-1568): Hodie beata virgo Maria a 4; Missa Ave regina caelorum a 5-6; Pater noster a 8; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Diffusa est gratia a 5 [2]; Senex puerum portabat a 5 [1]; plainchant: Nunc dimittis, tractus; Responsum accepit Simeon, communion; Suscepimus, Deus, introitus & gradual; Andreas DE SILVA (c1475/80-c1530): Ave regina caelorum a 5; Inviolata, integra et casta es Maria a 5

Sources: Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina, [1] Liber primus motettorum, 1569; [2] Offertoria totius anni, 1593

[MC] Stephen Shellard, Leonora Dawson-Bowling, Andra Patterson, soprano; Simon Lillystone, Samir Savant, Peter North, alto; Patrick Allies, Andrew Hope, Simon Ravens, tenor; Chris Hunter, Philip Pratt, Edmund Saddington, bass
[ECSE] Gawain Glenton, cornett; Emily White, Tom Lees, Andrew Harwood-White, sackbut

It is ironic that in the about 20 years that I write reviews never a disc with music by Jacques Arcadelt has landed on my desk, and that recently two discs with his music were more or less simultaneously released. It has happened before that a composer who was mostly neglected all of a sudden raises the interest of various performers at about the same time. I wonder why that is the case. Anyway, considering that the only disc in my collection entirely devoted to Arcadelt comprises madrigals (performed by The Consort of Musicke) I am happily surprised with these two discs.

It may seem a little disappointing that two pieces appear on both discs, among them the longest, the Missa Ave Regina coelorum. Not that it is very surprising: there isn't that much to choose from in Arcadelt's oeuvre as far as sacred music is concerned. Only three masses have come down to us, one Magnificat setting, three sets of Lamentations and 24 motets, one of which is of doubtful authenticity. In comparison a large number of chansons and madrigals have been preserved. No less than six collections of chansons were printed between 1561 and 1569 in Paris, and during his stay in Italy seven books with madrigals were printed between 1539 and 1544.

Arcadelt was probably born near Namur which makes him a representative of the Franco-Flemish school. Nothing is known about his earliest years or his musical education. It seems that he was in Florence in the late 1520s; six motets from his pen were included in an anthology from the early 1530s. It is here that he started to write large quantities of madrigals, partly commissioned by people from the higher echelons of society. In 1538 we find him in Rome where he entered the Cappella Sistina in 1540; here he remained until 1551. In 1551 or 1552 he entered the service of the Cardinal of Lorraine, and he stayed in his service until his death.

His importance as composer of religious music is probably reflected by the very little space which is devoted to that part of his oeuvre in New Grove. Far more lines are used to describe his secular music; it seems that even in his own time he was already mainly known for this kind of music. The archive of the Cappella Sistina includes some of his music, which is an indication that it was sung during liturgy. It is likely that the Missa Ave Regina coelorum was written in Rome as it is based on a motet by Andreas de Silva. He was probably from Spain and was a member of the Cappella Sistina in the early 1520s. His motet Ave Regina coelorum has been preserved in the Cappella's archive.

The Mass is a kind of link between Josquin and Palestrina. The passages for reduced forces are for three voices - Josquin preferred two - and in the Agnus Dei the number of voices is extended from five to six. In his motets we find more declamatory traits and a closer connectiom between text and music than in works by other composers of his and certainly of previous generations. This reflects his interests and skills in the writing of madrigals.

The approach of the two ensembles is quite different. The Josquin Cappella has selected only pieces by Arcadelt, whereas Musica Contexta has included music by Palestrina and De Silva as well and has added plainchant between the sections of the Mass. That in itself is a little surprising: it suggests a kind of 'liturgical reconstruction', but in his liner-notes Simon Ravens specifically states that this was not his intention. Equally surprising is the choice of plainchant. "It may seem perverse that we should present versions of chant (...) that could not have existed at the time in which we have placed this recording - the end of the sixteenth century". Quite. "In spirit, however, these abbreviated chants were very much alive in the Rome of the renaissance". I don't know what so say about this.

Another difference is the use of instruments. The Josquin Cappella performs the whole programme a cappella. Musica Contexta adds cornetts and sackbuts in a number of pieces. I have not been able to discover why they are added in one piece and omitted in another. Even in the Mass their use lacks consistency. There seems general agreement that no instruments were used in the Cappella Sistina. That could be the reason the motet Ave Regina coelorum by De Silva, which has been preserved in the Cappella's archive, is performed here without instrumental participation. The fact that Arcadelt's Mass was printed in 1557 in Paris, together with his two other masses, could be the justification for the use of instruments. In other cases I don't know whether their inclusion is historically plausible. Especially the performance of Hodie beata virgo Maria with one voice singing the upper part and the lower parts played by instruments seems rather questionable. As far as the number of singers is concerned, it is hard to decide what comes closer to the circumstances in Rome. The Josquin Cappella consistently performs the music with one voice per part, whereas Musica Contexta comprises twelve singers. It need to be added that Musica Contexta's purpose is to present the various performance practices in Rome which were in vogue in the late 16th century, according to Simon Ravens. An interesting question is whether Arcadelt's music was still sung at the end of the 16th century.

There are also considerable differences in the way the music is sung. I mentioned the declamatory elements in Arcadelt's music. These come more prominently to the fore in Musica Contexta's performance than in the recording by Josquin Cappella. The latter sing strict legato with little dynamic shading and hardly any accentuation of elements in the text. However, Musica Contexta is rather exaggerating. There is little legato in the plainchant, and if this was part of a performance of baroque music I would say: excellent! It is different here, though: plainchant should definitely be sung legato with little dynamic shading. In the polyphony it is alright to stress some elements in the text, but here the music is sometimes sung as if it were Monteverdi. A striking example is the "Et iterum" from the Gloria of the Mass. Simon Ravens emphasizes the emotional aspects in the oeuvre of Palestrina. He mentions his motet Senex puerum portabat as an example, but the way it is sung here seems to be highly exaggerated. Arcadelt's setting of Pater noster is sung at a slower tempo by Musica Contexta than by the Josquin Cappella; moreover the cornetss and sackbuts participate. As a result it has a greater emotional impact, but the question is whether that is in line with the composer's intentions. We are still in the time of the stile antico after all.

Consequently these two recordings, and in particular that by Musica Contexta, raise various questions in regard to performance practice. That in itself is not a bad thing. Leaving this aside we can be very happy with these two discs which - despite some duplications in the repertoire - are very different and shed light on a composer who is unjustly neglected, certainly as far as his sacred music is concerned. Both ensembles deliver outstanding performances in their own right. The voices blend perfectly, there is no wobble in any of the sections of the vocal ensembles. The balance between the voice groups is also very good. Lovers of renaissance music are advised to investigate both recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Josquin Capella
Musica Contexta
The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble

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