musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Ezekiel's Eagle - A Renaissance brotherhood celebrates St John the Evangelist"

Capella Pratensis
Dir: Stratton Bull

rec: Oct 19/20/22/23, 2020, Heusden (NL), Catharijnekerk
Challenge Classics - CC72878 (© 2021) (60'14")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

In order of appearance: Jean MOUTON (1459-1522): [Motet] Tua est potentia; plainchant: [Introitus] Protexisti me; Jean MOUTON: Missa Tua est potentia (Kyrie; Gloria); plainchant: [Alleluia] Clamaverunt iusti; [Alleluia] Dominus in Synai; [Sequentia] Verbum Dei Deo natum; Jean MOUTON: Missa Tua est potentia (Credo); [Offertorium motet] Salva nos Domine; plainchant/anon: Prefatio; Jean MOUTON: Missa Tua est potentia (Sanctus)/ anon: [Elevation motet] O salutaris hostia; plainchant: Pater noster; Jean MOUTON: Missa Tua est potentia (Agnus Dei); plainchant: [Communio] Ego sum vitis; Jean MOUTON: [Motet] Da pacem Domine

Stratton Bull, Andrew Hallock, superius; Lior Leibovici, Korneel Van Neste, altus; Pieter De Moor, Peter de Laurentiis, tenor; Marc Busnel, Máté Bruckner, bassus

There is no lack of recordings of masses and motets from the Renaissance. Such pieces are mostly performed separately, as a kind of 'concert pieces'. However, originally they were intended to be sung during the liturgy. Obviously it is not always possible to reconstruct the liturgical framework in which they were performed in the composer's time. It is a matter of good luck when we have enough information and the musical material needed to perform them as they were intended. The disc under review is part of a project whose purpose is just that, thanks to a set of partbooks at the Brotherhood of the Illustrious Lady in the city of 's-Hertogenbosch (short Den Bosch), in the southern province Noord-Brabant in the Netherlands.

It all started in 2016, when the 500th anniversary of the painter Hieronymus Bosch was celebrated with a large-scale exhibition of his paintings in 's-Hertogenbosch, where 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 this master, one of the representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, was an obvious one. Bosch was a life-long sworn brother of the Brotherhood, and from the early 1490s until his death in 1518 La Rue was an external member of that same brotherhood.

A few years ago the recording of the mass by La Rue was reissued, now with the addition of "The Den Bosch Choirbooks, Vol. 1". The present disc is the second volume in this series. It focuses on the celebration of St John the Evangelist, who takes a special place in the confraternity, which still exists. There are two feasts for St John: the universal feast day at 27 December and the feast of St John before the Latin Gate on 6 May. The latter is the day that is chosen for the liturgical framework of plainchant and polyphony.

Three choirbooks attest to the music culture at the confraternity. These were purchased from the famous Flemish scribe Petrus Imhoff, better known as Alamire. Two include mainly mass settings and were commissioned by the confraternity in 1530. Alamire himself delivered them in 's-Hertogenbosch, and he offered the confraternity a third book, which included eight masses and eight motets. Alamire was the main scribe of polyphony of his time, and had access to various important sources, such as the Habsburg-Burgundian and French courts. That is reflected by the repertoire in the third choirbook.

The feast of St John before the Latin Gate commemorates the attempted martyrdom of the Evangelist in AD 92, when he emerged unscathed from a pot of boiling oil, an event thought to have taken place near one of the gates in the wall surrounding Rome. "The liturgy for today's Mass follows the formulary for the Common of an Apostle or Martyr, whose texts emphasise pleas for peace and protection (...)" (booklet).

All the masses in the third book mentioned above are by Jean Mouton, one of the main composers in France around 1500. His Missa Tua est potentia is based on his own motet of that title, which opens the book. The text is suitable for this feast, as it ends with the phrase "Give peace in our time, Lord". The liturgy then follows the order as indicated in the track-list. The texts can all be connected in one way of the other to the feast. The Introitus Protexiste me, for instance, opens with the words "You have protected me, O God, from the assembly of the malignant". The Alleluia Clamaverunt iusti says: "The just cried, and the Lord heard them, and delivered them from all their troubles". The Sequentia Verbum Dei refers to the opening of the Gospel after St John: "The Word of God, who was born of God, and was neither made nor created, came down from the realm of heaven."

Instead of the common Offertory, a motet is performed, which was a familiar custom in the confraternity's liturgical practice. Again the text fits the occasion: "Save us, O Lord, waking, and guard us sleeping, that we may watch with Christ, and rest in peace". Another habit of the confraternity was to replace the Osanna in the Sanctus by an Elevation motet. Here we hear the anonymous O salutaris hostia, from another Alamire manuscript. The Communio is a setting of a text from St John's Gospel, one of the many "I am" texts: "I am the true vine, you are the branches". The mass ends fittingly with a prayer for peace: Da pacem, Domine, a six-part motet by Mouton.

As far as the performance is concerned, two things need to be mentioned. First, in some plainchant, the performers have added improvised polyphony. That happens in the Introitus, the Sequentia and in the Pater noster. "In this way we wish to represent the full spectrum of performance approaches at the time, from res facta or written polyphony to the extemporaneous practice of 'singing on the book'", Stratton Bull writes in the booklet.

Second, the Cappella Pratensis uses to perform polyphony standing closely together around a music-stand and reading from the choirbook. Because of the distancing regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was not possible. Instead, a large digital screen was used, which allowed to sing from digitallized images of the manuscripts. "The challenge was to preserve the same unity of sound that we are used to when we sing in close physical proximity, and to sing the same text when sharing a vocal line whose layout is ambiguous or missing in the source".

I am impressed by what has been achieved under such difficult circumstances. Having heard the Cappella Pratensis many times on disc and live, I know what to expect, and my expectations were pleasantly confirmed here. The clarity of the voices is remarkable, not only thanks to the way of singing, but also to the acoustic and the way the music has been recorded. The recording team needs to understand the idiosyncracies of a liturgy in order to do justice to the various roles of the participants. The way the Pater noster has been recorded is a good example, as here we hear a clear distinction between the celebrant and the schola.

This may well be the first recording of the Missa Tua est potentia by Mouton, but even if it has been recorded before, its performance as part of a liturgical framework makes this recording something no lover of renaissance polyphony should miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Cappella Pratensis

CD Reviews