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"Vivat Leo! - Music for a Medici Pope"

Cappella Pratensis
Dir: Joshua Rifkin

rec: April 12 - 14, 2010, Antwerp, AMUZ
Challenge Classics - CC72366 ( 2010) (64'56")

Johannes DE LA FAGE (fl c1518-1530): Videns dominus civitatem desolatam a 4; Costanzo FESTA (c1490-1545): Inviolata, integra et casta es a 8; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Miserere mei, Deus a 5; Nymphes des bois (La deploration de Johannes Okeghem) a 5; Jean MOUTON (before 1459-1522): Exalta regina Gallie a 4; Nesciens mater virgo virum a 8; Per lignum salvi a 5; Andreas DE SILVA (c1485-c1525?): Gaude felix Florentia a 6; Omnis pulchritudo Domini a 5; Adrian WILLAERT (c1490-1562): Saluto te, sancta Virgo Maria a 4; Virgo gloriosa Christi, Margareta a 5

Julien Freymuth, Stratton Bull, superius; Christopher Kale, Lior Leibovici, altus; Jeroen Spitteler, Robert Buckland, tenor; Lionel Meunier, Pieter Stas, bassus

Most of the surviving polyphonic music of the renaissance was written at royal or aristocratic courts. Another centre of music was the papal court in Rome. Music wasn't just part of the liturgy - some popes had a personal love for and knowledge of music. One of them was Leo X, who was born as Giovanni de' Medici, and thus a member of one of the wealthiest families of Europe. Their wealth gained them considerable political influence, but they were also great patrons of the arts. Giovanni was no exception, and as he became pope in 1513 he continued his accustomed luxurious life style. As a result the papacy was soon short of money which was partly solved by an increase of the sales of indulgencies. This was a catalyst of the Reformation as a reaction against these very practices was one of the motives behind this movement.

The result of Leo's love for music is the so-called Medici Codex which nowadays is preserved in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. It comprises 53 motets by various composers, some of which belonged to the most famous of that time. Two of them are represented on this disc: Jean Mouton who at the time of Leo's papacy was at the height of his fame, and Josquin who had already withdrawn from active musical duty but was still considered one of the greatest composers.

The programme also contains some minor masters. It is not known when and where Andreas de Silva was born. It is suggested that he was of Spanish birth and had enjoyed an early training in music in France. Omnis pulchritudo Domini contains some striking text expression. The piece which opens the programme is from another source. Its inclusion is highly appropriate as De Silva wrote Gaude felix Florentia (Rejoice, happy Florence) specifically in honour of Pope Leo X, probably at the occasion of Leo's visit to his native city Florence in 1515. He is exuberantly praised as "master and shepherd, whose dignity as much exceeds all royal power as light exceeds darkness". At some time De Silva entered the service of Leo, as in 1519 he is referred to as a singer and composer in the papal chapel.

The closing piece, Inviolata, integra et casta es, is also from another source. It is by the only Italian-born composer featured on this programme, Costanzo Festa. From 1517 to 1545 he was a member of the Cappella Sistina in Rome. This Marian motet is a quadruple canon for eight voices. Its scoring imparts a dense texture, and the treatment of the eight voices creates a sense of exaltation which matches the text about the "inviolate, intact and pure" Virgin Mary. An almost unknown quantity is Johannes de la Fage. He was probably of French birth, and a contemporary called him "a contrabass, the best in Italy". Thirteen motets by him are known, and two of them are included in the Medici Codex. The motet recorded here, Videns dominus civitatem desolatam, is an expressive and rather gloomy piece about a ruler seeing the "desolate city" - probably hit by the plague - and asking Jesus to "turn your anger from your people".

Josquin is represented by one of his best-known and most impressive compositions, Nymphes des bois, a lament on the death of Johannes Ockeghem, considered one of the greatest composers of the renaissance. Four composers, among them Josquin himself, are urged to "dress yourselves in clothes of mourning". The text is in French, but it contains a cantus firmus in Latin, from the Requiem Mass: "Requiem eternam dona eis Domine et lux perpetua luceat eis". It ends with another text in Latin: "Requiescat in pace. Amen". The longest piece is also by Josquin, his setting of the penitential Psalm 50, Miserere mei, Deus. It is in three sections, and every verse is followed by a repeat of the three opening words. As these are sung 21 times in total they are the framework of this long motet.

Jean Mouton was very famous in his time, but today his music is less often performed than, for instance, Josquin's. His music is highly sophisticated and often virtuosic. Nesciens mater virgo virum, another Marian motet, is for eight voices, and takes the form of a canon. The Easter motet Per lignum salvi also has a canon in two inner voices. The inclusion of Exalta regina Gallie in the Medici Codex is quite curious. This was written in honour of the military victory of the French King Francis I - Leo's main political opponent - at Marignano over the pope's Swiss allies. The fact that Mouton was the director of Francis' chapel didn't prevent the pope from admiring him as a composer. After he met him in 1515 Leo named him an apostolic notary. Apparently Leo's love for music was stronger than his longing for political power.

Lastly Willaert: he was still very young when Leo was pope. When he arrived in Rome he heard the papal choir sing one of his motets which was assumed to be written by Josquin. When he revealed that he was the composer the piece was taken off the repertoire. Even so, he would rise to prominence later that century, and as maestro di cappella of San Marco in Venice he laid the foundation of the polychoral style. Virgo gloriosa Christi, Margareta is written for low voices. It is an invocation to Margareta who was the patron saint of childbirth. Saluto te, sancta Virgo Maria contains several passages for two voices, which also often appear in compositions by Josquin and Mouton.

The Cappella Pratensis was founded in 1987 with the aim of performing music by Josquin Desprez and his contemporaries. Under their first director, Rebecca Stewart, much attention was given to the character of every composition, especially in regard to pronunciation and the use of the voice. As a result performances could vary considerably depending on the repertoire. Another feature of its interpretations was subtle inflection in dynamics. Listening to the Cappella Pratensis after a considerable span of time I feel that some of these features have gone. To me the ensemble sounds more like other ensembles of this kind, whereas in the early days its style of singing was quite unique. It is telling that the Cappella Pratensis also sings secular repertoire these days, and even contemporary music. Also remarkable is the fact that they have chosen to work with guest conductors from time to time. It is not clear to me why an ensemble like this needs a non-singing conductor, unlike Rebecca Stewart in her time.

I hasten to add that this in no way diminishes my appreciation for the performances which are delivered here. The singing is crisp and clear, and even in the dense textures of the eight-part motets the sound is very transparent. The voices blend well, also in the duets which appear in various pieces. The miking has been a bit too close; listening through headphones the individual voices are too prominent. But this is only a minor detail of what is a very fine and interesting recording with a good mixture of well-known and lesser-known pieces.

The lavish booklet contains extended programme notes by Joshua Rifkin in English, French, German and Dutch as well as the complete lyrics with translations in the same languages. The sources of the various pieces are also included.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

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Cappella Pratensis

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