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CD reviews

Pierre de LA RUE (c1452 - 1518): Masses & motets

[I] Missa Cum jocunditate ("Visions of joy - The Chapel of Hieronymus Bosch")
Cappella Pratensis; Wim Diepenhorst, organa
Dir: Stratton Bull
rec: Nov 23 - 25, 2015, Franc-Warêt (B), Église Saint-Rémy
Challenge Classics - CC72710 (© 2016) (64'24")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] plainchant / anon: [introitus] Salve sancta parens; Pierre de LA RUE: Missa Cum jocunditate a 5 (Kyrie; Gloria); plainchant: [gradual] Benedictus et venerabilis es; [alleluia] Ave Maria; anon / [improvisation]: [sequence] Verbum bonum et suavea; Pierre de LA RUE: Missa Cum jocunditate a 5 (Credo); [improvisation] O salutaris hostiaa; anon: [offertory motet] Sub tuum praesidium; plainchant: [preface] Vere dignum et justum est; Pierre de LA RUE: Missa Cum jocunditate a 5 (Sanctus) & ano: [elevation motet] O salutaris hostia; [improvisation] Pater nostera; Pierre de LA RUE: Missa Cum jocunditate a 5 (Agnus Dei); plainchant: [communion] Beata viscera; [improvisation] Cum jocunditate; Pierre de LA RUE: Gaude virgo a 4, motet

Stratton Bull, Andrew Hallock, superius; Pieter De Moor, Lior Leibovici, altus; Olivier Berten, Peter de Laurentiis, tenor; Lionel Meunier, Pieter Stas, bassus

[II] Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor, Missa Inviolata
The Brabant Ensemble
Dir: Stephen Rice
rec: August 6 - 8, 2015, Loughton (Essex), Parish Church of St John the Baptist
Hyperion - CDA68150 (© 2016) (78'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Magnificat 6. toni a 5a; Missa Inviolata a 4b; Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor a 4c; Salve Regina VI a 4d

Helen Ashbyacd, Kate Ashbyab, Eloise Irving, soprano; Emma Ashby, Sarah Coatsworthcd, Claire Edingtonab, Rebekah Jonesacd, contralto; Alastair Careycd, Christopher O'Gorman, Alastair Puttab, tenor; Paul Charrier, David Stuart, bass

In 2016 the 500th anniversary of the death of the painter Hieronymus Bosch was celebrated with a large-scale exhibition of his paintings in 's-Hertogenbosch, the capital of Brabant, one of the southern provinces of the Netherlands. There he was born and worked most of his life. As his paintings include musicians and instruments the Cappella Pratensis took the opportunity to record a mass by Pierre de La Rue, the Missa Cum Jocunditate. The choice of music by this master, one of the representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, is an obvious one. Bosch was a life-long sworn brother of the city's Brotherhood of Our Illustrious Lady, a large and prestigious organization for which sacred music was an essential and highly-valued part of its devotional life. From the early 1490s until his death in 1518 La Rue was an external member of that same brotherhood.

The Missa Jocunditate is one of the masses which was part of the three manuscripts which the Confraternity had commissioned from the music scribe Petrus Alamire. It is based on the first six notes of the final Vespers antiphon for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. These six notes play a prominent role in this Mass setting. Cappella Pratensis decided to perform this mass in a liturgical context. They chose the Confraternity's Wednesday votive Marian Mass. All the pieces, except the closing motet, are taken from manuscripts especially put together for the Confraternity's worship. This results in a performance practice which takes into account the habits of this Confraternity. That includes the participation of an organ. "The sounds of the organ (...) were integral to these occasions; the Confraternity employed an organist and kept their chapel organ in fine repair", M. Jennifer Bloxam writes in her liner-notes. At several moments the organ plays improvisations: either in alternation with the voices (the sequens Verbum bonum et suave) or separately (O salutaris hostia, Pater noster and Cum jocunditate).

There are more peculiarities. Firstly, there was no Offertory chant to accompany the preparation of the gifts of bread and wine; "the chant books of the confraternity deliberately omit it". As it is assumed that there was music at this stage we hear here an improvisation on O salutaris hostia, a stanza from a hymn for Corpus Christi by Thomas Aquinas. It is followed by an anonymous motet, Sub tuum praesidium, whose text is appropriate for the occasion. Secondly, usually the first Osanna was sung during the Elevation of the Host. "However, confraternity custom permitted the substitution of an Elevation motet for the first Osanna, for which the singered were paid a little extra. Two of the Brotherhood's three Alamire choirbooks include an anonymous setting of O salutaris hostia expressly for this purpose". It seems a little odd that this text is included twice, albeit the first time it is only the subject of an organ improvisation.

Recordings of renaissance masses in a liturgical context are pretty rare. Obviously they are still performed as part of services across the world, for instance in Westminster Cathedral. But the other musical parts of the service are mostly from a different time and in a different style. Moreover, such performances are seldom released on disc; even the Choir of Westminster Cathedral records masses separately, out of any liturgical context. For that reason a disc like this one by the Cappella Pratensis is of great value. It is pretty unique in that it presents a liturgical reconstruction which is historically very plausible, thanks to the presence of all but one piece in the same source. Cappella Pratensis also tries to come as closely as possible to the historical performance practice in that the singers read from one large music book in original notation and use the then common Brabant pronunciation of Latin. It is probably impossible to say how many singers at the time were involved and whether the upper voices were sung by boys or men. The liner-notes don't mention this issue. Musically speaking this recording is an unequivocal success. The ensemble delivers excellent performances. The resonant sound of the lower voices and the overall perfect balance within the ensemble guarantees that the upper voices are not as dominant as is so often the case in performances of renaissance polyphony. Those who regret that the first Osanna of La Rue's mass is missing here can turn to two other recordings, by the Hilliard Ensemble (EMI, 1990) and Henry's Eight (Etcetera, 1997).

The name of Petrus Alamire turns up again in the booklet to the Hyperion disc which includes two masses, a Salve Regina and a Magnificat. That is not surprising; Alamire was one of the main music scribes of the time. Almost 50 manuscripts which he produced have been preserved, and no fewer than 36 include compositions by La Rue. He was a prolific composer who wrote motets, Magnificat settings and secular works, but masses constitute the most important part of his oeuvre: at least 30 can be attributed to him. The Brabant Ensemble recorded two of those which are from different stages of his career, although neither of them can be dated with any precision.

The earliest of the two is the Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor, and one of the relatively few compositions from La Rue's pen which was published: in 1503 Petrucci included it in a book entirely devoted to his masses. It is based on a Spanish song, written by the Flemish composer Johannes Urrede (fl 1451-c1482), who was maestro de capilla at the Aragonese royal chapel around 1480. The opening melody of this song is used as a headmotif in all five mass sections. As one expects in music by a representative of the Franco-Flemish school La Rue varies the number of voices within sections of the mass, partly to underline textual elements. The same goes for variety in metre and the alternation of homophony and polyphony.

These features also appear in the Missa Inviolata which seems to have been written between 1506 and 1516. It is based on the Marian sequence Inviolata, integra et casta es, Maria. "The Mass as a whole has a sunny disposition, partly due to the major mode of the plainsong on which it is based", Stephen Rice writes in his liner-notes. Notable is the high tessitura of the upper voices in the Kyrie and the juxtaposition of higher and lower voices in the Gloria and the Credo.

La Rue set the text of the Salve Regina six times, which can be explained by the fact "that the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel celebrated, as a minimum, a daily Vespers and Compline, as well as Mass". The Salve Regina was sung from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent, and in order to avoid too frequent repetition of the same music a number of settings were needed. This sixth setting is dominated by duets for upper or lower voices.

Traditionally the Magnificat was set in the various church modes; La Rue's oeuvre includes settings in seven of the eight tones (the third is absent). The Magnificat 6. toni is basically in four parts, but in two verses a second high voice is added and in two verses the number of voices is reduced to three. In music of this time there is seldom something like 'text expression', as we find it in later music, for instance by Lassus. As I mentioned before it is mostly through variation in the number of voices, changes in metre and contrast between homophony and polyphony that a composer singles out particular phrases. An example is the full five-part setting of the verse 'Fecit potentiam'. However, this Magnificat includes a notable example of text illustration: the word "divites" - the rich - is depicted by a trembling in all the parts.

In comparison with the performances of the Cappella Pratensis this recording by the Brabant Ensemble is rather 'conventional'. There is no attempt at any kind of liturgical reconstruction; this is a programme as it could be performed during a concert. The line-up, including female sopranos and altos, is also what is common in today's vocal ensembles. The upper voices are not as dominant as in some other ensembles but the balance is less satisfying than in the Cappella Pratensis. The pronunciation is also in line with what - unfortunately - is still common practice. It is a shame that still few ensembles try to come closer to what is known about performance practice in the renaissance, and especially to take the differences between the various regions in Europe into consideration. That said, this disc is a major addition to the discography. The Missa Inviolata seems to appear here for the first time on disc, the Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor is only included on a disc which is probably not widely available. There is little wrong with the performances; only at some moments I found the Missa Inviolata a bit dull and the singing a little flat. But overall these are fine performances and the music is magnificent.

Lovers of renaissance music should not hesitate to add these two discs to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Cappella Pratensis
The Brabant Ensemble

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