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"Apostola apostolorum - A Renaissance brotherhood celebrates St Mary Magdalene" (Champion, Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena)

Cappella Pratensis
Dir: Stratton Bull

rec: Nov 6 - 9, 2021, Heusden (NL), Catharijnekerk
Challenge Classics - CC72879 (© 2022) (76'52")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance] plainchant: [ntroitus] Gaudeamus omnes; Nicolas CHAMPION (c1475-1533): Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena (Kyrie; Gloria); plainchant / GOTTSCHALK of Aachen (fl 1071-1098): [sequentia] Laus tibi Christe; Nicolas CHAMPION: Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena (Credo); plainchant / anon: [Prefatio] Vere dignum et justum est; Nicolas CHAMPION: Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena (Sanctus) / Pierre de LA RUE (c1452-1518): O salutaris hostia; plainchant: Pater noster; Nicolas CHAMPION: Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena (Agnus Dei); plainchant: [communio] Diffusa est gratia
plainchant: [invitatorium] Deus in adiutorium; [antiphon] Mundi fastum abdicavit / anon: Laudate pueri; plainchant: [antiphon] Quando Martha satagebat / anon: Dixit Dominus; plainchant / anon: [hymnus] Sydus solare; plainchant: [antiphon] Fidelis sermo / anon: Magnificat

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

Mary Magdalene is one of the main subjects of veneration in the (Roman) Catholic Church. Her 'biography' is a conflation of elements from the lives of three different women in the four Gospels. The mythological web woven around her goes back to the sixth century and was initiated by Pope Gregory I. The veneration of Mary Magdalene was an important part of the celebrations by the Brotherhood of Our Illustrious Lady in 's-Hertogenbosch, today the capital of the province Brabant in the Netherlands. Among the illustrious members of this brotherhood were the painter Jeroen Bosch and the composer Pierre de La Rue. The disc under review here is the third of a project which aims at exploring the music collected in the nine choirbooks and collections of plainchant which were in use of the brotherhood and have been preserved until the present day.

The recording is divided into two sections. The first consists of a mass, the second of music for a Vesper service. The main work is the Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena by Nicolas Champion. He was from a family that was to play a role in music for quite some time: according to New Grove at least six musicians of this name were active in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nicolas was born in or near Ličge in the southern Netherlands. He was a prominent member of the court chapels of Philip the Fair and Charles V. His extant oeuvre comprises only five works: two masses, two motets on psalms and one chanson on a text in the vernacular. The Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena was originally written for Margaret of Austria, who was a strong devotee of Mary Magdalene. It was probably written between 1507 and 1515, when she was regent of the Netherlands.

The mass is scored for five voices, with two bass parts. What is especially notable is that in all sections the tenor quotes both the melody and the Proper text of seven different Office antiphons from the liturgy of Mary Magdalene. "This multiple cantus firmus technique allowed Champion to play with polytextuality by meaningfully combining different texts and narratives: while the tenor sings the texts and tunes of the different cantus firmi - which are highlighted in red ink in the two Alamire manuscripts of this Mass - the other voices deliver the words of the Mass Ordinary. The texts of the antiphons chosen by Champion refer to only three events in the Magdalene's life, all of biblical origin: her washing and anointing of Christ's feet at the house of Simon; her witness to the risen Christ; and the brief passage from Luke relating Christ's visit to Martha and Mary, in which Jesus praises the Magdalene for listening quietly to his words while Martha complains about preparing the food unassisted." (booklet)

These insertions are original, but the performance also pays tribute to the liturgical practices of the brotherhood. Part of that was that the Osanna I was replaced by an elevation motet. Given La Rue's membership of the brotherhood, the choice for his setting of O salutaris hostia is obvious. As polyphonic masses usually only consist of the Ordinary, the propers have to be added from different sources. Here they are taken from the archive of the brotherhood. That includes the sequentia Laus tibi Christe, written by Gottschalk of Aachen (fl 1071 - 98), a priest known for his notarial work in the chancery of Emperor Henry IV. He is thought to have written a substantial number of sequences.

Whereas the mass was not intended for the brotherhood, the polyphony for Vespers is unique to 's-Hertogenbosch and may well have been written by a local composer, who has remained unknown. All the pieces are exponents of the very common alternatim practice, in which the verses are alternately sung in plainchant and polyphony. The polyphony in the two psalms is rather simple, and written in fauxbourdon. In comparison, the four-part Magnificat 1. toni is more sophisticated. It includes a passage for three voices, but the number of voices is extended to five in the last verse of the doxology, with two bass parts, like Champion's mass. The composer also quotes the Requiem by Jean de Richafort.

The first two discs in this project were devoted to masses by rather well-known composers: Pierre de La Rue and Jean Mouton respectively. In comparison, Champion is a relatively little-known quantity. Some previous recordings include extracts from his two masses, and his chanson has also been recorded. One of his two psalm motets is available as well. However, this disc offers the first complete recording of one of his masses. It is a very fine and impressive work, that certainly deserves more attention. Part of this project is also the digitization of the sources, which allows for a performance by ensembles across the world. Its importance cannot be overrated. The recordings of some of the material are also of great value, in particular if they are as good as the three discs that have been released so far. Not only is the singing of the highest quality, aspects of performance practice are also interesting and stimulating. One aspect concerns the pronunciation: the performers have opted for a strict 'Dutch' pronunciation, which shows some similarity with the French pronunciation of Latin, but is still different.

Another feature of this recording is that parts of plainchant are performed in polyphony. "Descriptions from the sixteenth century tell us that, at its best, collective improvisation could be almost indistinguishable from notated polyphony, whereas critics complained that a performance might have been better were it written down instead. (...) While not therefore being 'improvised,' our polyphonic realisations aim to be 'improvisational' in their nature, representing a composed example of something that skilled singers may have been capable of creating 'extempore', while still having been 'made' under my guidance within the ensemble", Tim Braithwaite writes in the booklet. It is all very well done, and one of the intriguing aspects of this recording. The singing of the 'straight' plainchant is just as good as the performance of the polyphony.

The booklet, with its extensive and informative liner-notes, as well as texts and translations, rounds off this superb production.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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