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CD reviews

Late medieval masses

[I] "A late medieval mass"
Schola 'cantando praedicare'; Aeolos
rec: August 8 - 10, 2013, Wesertal-Lippoldsberg, (former) Klosterkirche St. Georg und Maria
Cantate - C58049 (© 2018) (60'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

[Schola] Maite Bartels, Markus Braun, Ulrike Braun, Bernhard Dick, Dietmar Dohmann, Christina Liessner, Klaus Müller, Michael Osthoff, Christina Marie Kimmel-Schröder, Christof Nikolaus Schröder
[Aeolos] Regine Häußler, Ingo Voelkner, schawm; Jens Bauer, sackbut

[II] "A late medieval mass on the Rysum organ"
Lorenzo Ghielmi, organ
Ensemble Biscantores (Luca Colombo)
rec: May 9 - 10, 2019, Rysum, Evangelisch-reformierte Kirche
Passacaille - PAS 1065 (© 2020) (60'11")
Liner-notes: E/D; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] anon: Praeambulum (No. 7) [8]; Johann WALTER (1496-1570): Aus tieffer No (verse 1) [6]; anon: De profundis super discantum [7]; Johann WALTER : Aus tieffer No (verse 2) [6]; [Introit] Nicolaus CRACOVIENSIS (fl 1540-1558) & plainchant: Introitus de Resurrectione Domini: Resurrexi, et adhuc tecum sum [7]; [Kyrie] Hans BUCHNER (1483-1538) & plainchant: Kyrie paschalis; [Gloria] Hans BUCHNER & plainchant: Et in terra paschale; anon: Praeambulum in principio cantus faciendus [8]; [Alleluia] Conrad REIN (1475-1522): Alleluia. Pascha nostrum a 4; [Sequence] Hans BUCHNER & plainchant: Victimae paschali laudes; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521) & anon: D'un autre amer/Victimae paschali a 4 / Victimae paschali laudes [5]; anon: Praeambulum super Fantasia plenurij [2]; [Credo] anon & plainchant: Patrem omnipotentem [2]; Wolhin laß vögelin sorgen [4]; [Sanctus] anon & plainchant: Summum Sanctus [1]; Heinrich FINCK (1445-1527): O sacrum misterium [8]; [Agnus Dei] Nicolaus CRACOVIENSIS: Praeambulum pro introductionis peduum aplicaris [8]; anon & plainchant: Agnus Dei [7]; anon: Mit ganczem Willen wünsch ich dir; Praeambulum super d a f et g [3]; plainchant: Ite missa est
anon: Christ ist erstanden [4]; Heinrich ISAAC (1450-1517): Christ ist erstanden a 4; anon: Christus surrexit [4]; Tylman SUSATO (c1510-c1570) (ed): 2 Galliards

Sources: [1] Winsum Tablature, c1435; [2] Oldenburg Tablature, c1445; [3] Adam Ileborgh Tablature, 1448; [4] Buxheimer Orgelbuch, 1460/70; [5] Fridolin Sicher Tablature, c1512/21; [6] Johann Walter, Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn, 1524; [7] Tablature by Jan z Lublina, 1537/48; [8] Cracow Tablature, c1548

Maximiliano Felipe Baños, alto, baritone; Massimo Altieri, Paolo Davolio, tenor; Gregorio Stanga, baritone

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance the Christian faith and the Church played a key role in everyday life. Each day masses were celebrated, and there were also many other events in which the Church was involved. This resulted in a large repertoire of liturgical music for every day of the year. Before the invention of printing (music), masses and chants were written down by hand and copied. Liturgical music was written with a purpose, and if it was not needed anymore, or replaced by 'modern' chants, the manuscripts in which it was written, was thrown away and the paper was used for another purpose, such as bookbinding. This explains why a large part of what was performed in the liturgy has disappeared. Mostly separate chants have been preserved. Manuscripts which offer (nearly) complete liturgies, are rather rare. It often takes a lot of work to reconstruct a liturgical event. The two discs under review here both offer a 'late medieval mass', but are very different in the way this concept has been worked out.

The first disc brings us to Göttingen, a city in Lower Saxony. The city archive possesses a late-medieval manuscript, the so-called Göttingen St. Johannis Missal. It comprises 324 parchment folios, including liturgical music written in neumes on five lines. The missal contains a copy of a deed of donation dated 1400, which gives us some idea of the time it has been put together. Music for the feastdays of St John the Baptist take an important place in the missal, which can be explained from the fact that the church that is today also known as the Haupt- und Marktkirche, was consecrated to him. This also inspired the performers in the selection of music for this recording. The missal includes six masses in his honour: three for his birthday, and one each for the day of the octave, the Beheading and the Conception. The performers had the choice between sixteen different pieces for the Propers. They chose the Introit and the Gradual of the vigil Mass for the feast In Nativitate and the Proper of the Mass of the day.

Not each part of the Mass was written down. The ordinary was taken from another part of the manuscript. The readings and the parts of the mass that were exclusively allotted to the priest, have been replaced by instrumental pieces.

It is almost inevitable that a liturgical reconstruction raises questions. We don't know exactly what was sung at a particular occasion, and performers are forced to take some decisions on the basis of 'historically informed' guesswork. That is not any different here. One issue concerns the Gloria. The liner-notes state that, taking into account the special festive atmosphere, which was a reason to insert tropes - new texts - into standard chants, it was decided to perform here a troped Gloria reserved for a Marian feast. One could argue that the fact that the collection does not include any troped Gloria connected to a feast of St John the Baptist, may well indicate that these feasts were not seen as a reason to perform tropes. In contrast, there are good arguments to include a sequence following the Alleluia, as this was common practice until the Council of Trent. For this recording the sequence Sancti baptiste Christi preconis by Notker I of St Gall was inserted. Whether such a practice did not exist in Göttingen or whether the sequence needed for this mass has been lost, is a question which is probably hard to answer.

Lastly, something needs to be said about the instrumental sections. At particularly festive occasions, the sung portions of the Mass were performed polyphonically, and the singers could use a written-out motet by some composer or improvise super librum: ad hoc directly from the missal. Here the singers make no attempt to recreate this practice, but this has been left to the instrumental ensemble. The instrumental sections are based on what has been sung. It is notable that three pieces by the French composer Philippe de Vitry are performed. This is inspired by the fact that codices found in German archives and libraries mostly originate in northern France of the late 14th century and always include pieces by Vitry.

As one may conclude, even if a missal offers almost complete masses, there is still something to be done before it can be performed and recorded. The decisions that are taken, may be the subject of criticism, but we should be grateful that performers are willing to do the hard work to realise a performacence. This recording gives a pretty good idea of what a mass on an important feast day may have looked like. The performances leave nothing to be desired. The singing and playing are excellent and the whole project is accompanied by most informative liner-notes. For every lover of liturgical music this is a disc not to be missed.

The second disc also offers a late-medieval mass, but its programme is very different. Its starting point is not a collection of liturgical chants, but rather a musical instrument: the organ of the Evangelisch-reformierte Kirche in Rysum, a small village in East-Frisia, 15 kilometers west of Emden. The organ was built in Groningen (in the most northern province of the Netherlands) around 1440 and a few years later erected in the church in Rysum, where it is now. In 1513 some changes and additions were made, but these did not fundamentally change the organ's character. In its present state it is not different from that of 1513. It is one of the very few organs which have survived unharmed the many esthetic changes in the course of history. Konrad Küsters, in his liner-notes, states that the organ can be considered a late Gothic instrument.

If one looks at the programme, the title of this disc, "A late medieval mass on the Rysum organ", has to be put between inverted commas, as most of the music selected dates from the late 15th century, and some are even from the early 16th century. That is the time we use to call Renaissance. It is also notable that nearly none of the pieces in the programme has any connection to the organ or even the region of Germany where Rysum is situated. It is very unlikely that any of them may have ever been performed there. After all, we are still in the time that music could not be printed. Moreover, organists usually improvised, and therefore there was no need to write anything down. Lorenzo Ghielmi plays pieces that are included in tablatures. Those collections were mostly put together as study material for budding keyboard players - music to learn from and to emulate.

Küsters sums up the reasoning behind this recording thus: "The choice of works is (...) partly based on the liturgy; the pieces have also been selected on the basis of their relation to the cultural currents described earlier, with the result that works that sound very different thanks to their style and period can therefore be placed side by side." The feast of Easter was chosen as a criterion for the selection of the pieces. The Introit, for instance, opens with a piece by Nicolaus Cracoviensis, in alternation with plainchant: Resurrexi, et adhuc tecum sum. For the Alleluia, a piece by Conrad Rein was chosen: Alleluia. Pascha nostrum. At the end, after the mass has been closed with the Ite missa est, we get some additional music connected to Easter, based on two hymns: Christ ist erstanden and Christus surrexit.

It makes much sense to present this unique organ as part of a mass. Until the 18th century organs in churches were exclusively used in the liturgy. Organ recitals as we know them today did not exist. Secular music was certainly not played on church organs. This recording gives a good impression of how organs were used: mostly in alternation with the choir, which sang plainchant or polyphony. Both are represented here.

This is an important recording, for several reasons. The first is the organ: it is a unique instrument, one of the oldest in the world that is in playable condition. The second is that it gives an impression of how it was used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and what a mass could look like at the time. The third reason is the choice of repertoire: most of the tablatures, from which the music is taken, are rather well-known, in particular the one of Joannes de Lyublyn (as he called himself) and the Buxheim Organ Book, but as many pieces in these collections are rather short, they are not that often played, as they can hardly stand on their own feet, without the liturgical context for which they were intended. This recording shows the way to perform these pieces, whose quality justifies their inclusion in a programme like this.

Lorenzo Ghielmi is an expert in early keyboard music, and he shows his expertise in his display of the colours of the organ. His articulation is essential to bring out the character of the various pieces selected for this programme. The Ensemble Biscantores delivers excellent performances of the vocal items.

Not only those who are especially interested in early liturgical music will enjoy this disc, but lovers of early organs and organ music should add it to their collection too. Let's hope this instrument will be used more frequently for the performance of renaissance organ music.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Lorenzo Ghielmi
Ensemble Biscantores

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