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Giaches DE WERT (1535 - 1596): "O mors, quam amara est - Motets, Book I (1566)"

Collegium Musicum Amsterdam
Dir: Anthony Zielhorst

rec: April 13, 14 & 21, 2013, Gellicum (Neth), O.L. Vrouw Geboortekerk
Brilliant Classics - 94684 ( 2014) (74'41")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: N
Cover & track-list

Adesto dolori meo a 6; Clama ne cesses a 5; Cum intrasset Jesus a 5; Deus, tu scis insipientiam a 5; Domine si tu es a 5; Ego autem in Domino sperabo a 5; Intravit Jesus a 5; Nolite esse prudentes a 5; O mors, quam amara est a 5; O sacrum convivium a 5; Omnia in vera iudicio a 5; Omnis homo a 5; Paraclitus autem spiritus a 5; Qui vindicari vult a 5; Tu Deus clemens a 5; Transeunte Domino a 5

Source: Motectorum liber primus, 1566

Giaches de Wert was one of the main representatives of the Franco-Flemish school in the late 16th century. At an early age he was taken to Italy; there he remained for the rest of his life. He first acted as a singer in the household of Maria di Cardona, Marchese of Padulla. He developed strong ties to the county of Novellara, which was ruled by a branch of the Gonzaga family. It is probably thanks to these ties that he was able to work as maestro di capella at the court of the governor of Milan. In 1565 he became maestro di capella di chiesa e di camera at the court of Mantua.

De Wert became especially famous for his madrigals: ten books were printed during his lifetime. In this genre he strongly influenced composers of next generations, for instance Claudio Monteverdi who also worked at the Mantuan court for a number of years. Wert's madrigals have left their mark in his motets. He composed a considerable amount of sacred music, but most of it has been preserved in manuscript, including a number of masses. Only three books with motets were printed during his lifetime. In 2008 Signum Classics released a recording of Il secondo libro de motetti of 1581. The present disc is devoted to the first book of 1566 which includes 19 motets; 16 of them have been recorded here. They are all for five voices, except Adesto dolori meo which is for six.

The connection to the madrigals comes to the fore in the way Wert sets the various texts. He makes use of harmony, contrasts in metre, musical figures and a juxtaposition of polyphony and homophony to express words or phrases. He was not unique in this respect: in the second half of the 16th century there is a general increase in text expression in sacred music. Another representative of the Franco-Flemish school whose oeuvre bears the traces of this fashion is Orlandus Lassus. In the first book by Wert some motets show rather strict imitative polyphony, others include 'old' and 'modern' elements, and some are even quite dramatic. That goes especially for those which have a text from the Gospels where some of Jesus's actions are described. The most striking example is Cum intrasset Jesus which describes how he enters Jerusalem and causes quite a stir. People are asking: "Who is he?" which is vividly painted in the music. These words are sung in declamatory fashion, and repeated at various pitches, suggesting the crowd talking. The answer: "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee" is repeated at the end of the motet to the same music.

Deus, tu scis insipientiam ends with the prayer: "Hear me", which is set to a striking rising figure in the upper voices. "For thou hast considered my trouble" in Ego autem in Domino sperabo is set at a low pitch, and the words "pacem habentes" (live in peace [with all men]) homophonically. This way these words get special emphasis.

It is known that in the Basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua which was built from 1562 to 1565 sacred music was often performed with instruments. Here all the motets are performed with voices alone. This is regrettable: the inclusion of instruments in some motets would have created greater variety, and some of pieces certainly lend themselves to such an approach. The choir comprises 18 voices, exactly the same as the Collegium Regale which recorded the second book. However, there is quite a difference: the transparency in the latter recording is much greater, and as a result the texts are more clearly understandable. In the present recording I sometimes found it hard to hear exactly what was sung. That goes especially for Domine, si tu es - it took a while until I discovered that the text which is sung here is not the same as the one which is printed in the downloadable file. The latter words are taken from the book of Acts rather than from St Matthew, the text Wert has set. The expression of the meaning of the words doesn't always come off to best effect. A smaller ensemble would be more appropriate in this repertoire.

That said, this recording has to be welcomed. To my knowledge it is the first to offer the almost complete first book of motets, and sacred nusic by Wert is not well represented in the catalogue anyway. These performances are not ideal but are good enough to demonstrate the art of Wert as a composer of sacred music.

A word about the booklet: the lyrics are not included and have to be downloaded from the Brilliant Classics site. They come with only a Dutch translation which doesn't make any sense. This disc is released for the international market; the liner-notes are only in English. The sources of the texts are indicated, but only in Dutch. "Jes." means Isaiah, "Mat." St Matthew, "Lc" St Luke and "Joh" St John. "Eccl." doesn't refer to Ecclesiastes but to the deuterocanonical book Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach. From that source O mors, quam amara est and Qui vindicari vult are taken. The booklet mentions the book of Daniel as the source of O sacrum convivium, but that is incorrect; it is in fact a liturgical text.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Collegium Musicum Amsterdam

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