musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Heinrich Isaac & Alexander Agricola

[I] Heinrich ISAAC (c1450 - 1517): "Ein frölich wesen - Secular and textless music of Heinrich Isaac"
Les Flamboyants
Dir: Michael Form

rec: June 23 - 29, 2010, Mulhouse, Temple St. Jean
Christophorus - CHR 77360 (© 2012) (62'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Heinrich ISAAC: Palle palle a 4; Tart ara a 3; anon: J'ay pris amours a 3; Heinrich ISAAC: J'ay pris amours a 3; J'ay pris amours a 4; Missa La Spagna (Agnus Dei II a 3); Et je boi d'autant a 4; In meinem Sinn a 4; [textless piece] a 3; De tous bien playne/Et qui lui dira a 2; Mon père m'a donné mari a 4; [textless piece] a 3; Jacques BARBIREAU (1455-1491): Een vrolic wesen a 3; Heinrich ISAAC: En vrölic wessen a 2 & a 3; Ain frelich Wesen a 4; Guillaume DUFAY (c1400-1474): Le serviteur hault guerdonné a 3; Heinrich ISAAC: Le serviteur a 3; Tristitia vestra a 3; Der Hundt: Das Kind lag in der Wiegen/Secunda pars a 3; Benedictus qui venit a 3; Hans KOTTER (c1485-1541): Fortuna in mi; Juan DE URREDE (c1430-after 1482): Nunqua fue pena maior; anon: Numqua fue pena maior; Heinrich ISAAC: Par ung iour de matinee a 4; Antoine BUSNOYS (c1430-1492): Fortuna desperata a 3; Heinrich ISAAC: Fortunata desperata a 3; Sanctus a 4; anon: Bruder konrad; Heinrich ISAAC: Missa carminum a 4 (Agnus Dei III); Missa paschalis a 4 (Christe); Fortuna/Bruder Conrat a 4; Fortuna disperata/Sancte Petre/Ora pro nobis a 5

Els Janssens-Vanmunster, Michael Feyfar, chant; Marc Lewon, chant, viola d'arco, lute, gittern, guitar; Margret Görner, Isabel Lehmann, flute; Baptiste Romain, renaissance violin, vielle; Silvia Tecardi, vielle, viola d'arco; Irene Klein, viola d'arco, viola da gamba; Romina Lischka, viola da gamba; Rogerio Gonçalves, dulcian, percussion; Giovanna Pessi, harp; Wolf-Eckart Dietrich, clavicytherium

[II] Alexander AGRICOLA (c1445/6 - 1506): "Colours in the Dark - The instrumental music of Alexander Agricola"
Ensemble Leones
Dir: Marc Lewon

rec: April 23 - 26, 2012, Binningen, Heilig Kreuz Kirche
Christophorus - CHR 77368 (© 2013) (81'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D/E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Alexander AGRICOLA: In minen Zin a 3; Hayne VAN GHIZEGHEM (c1445-1467/97): De tous bien plaine a 3; ROELKIN (late 15th C): De tous bien plaine a 2; Alexander AGRICOLA: De tous bien plaine II a 3; De tous bien plaine III a 3; De tous bien plaine IV a 3; De tous bien plaine V a 3; anon: Tandernaken a 1; Alexander AGRICOLA: Tandernaken a 3; anon: Si congié prens a 1; Alexander AGRICOLA: Si conge prens a 3; D[...] a 3; Je ne puis plus a 3; Cecus non judicat de coloribus a 3; Alexander AGRICOLA or Antoine BRUMEL (c1460-1512/13): Fors seullement a 4; Alexander AGRICOLA / Johannes GHISELIN (fl 1491-1507): Duo à 2; Alexander AGRICOLA: Pater meus agricola est a 3; Walter FRYE (?-c1475): Tout a par moy a 3; Alexander AGRICOLA: Tout a par moy II à 3; Tout a par moy I à 4; Fabrice FITCH (*1967): Agricola VIII / Obrecht canon III: De tous biens plaine/Tinguel-Brunnen (a); Alexander AGRICOLA: Helas, madame que feraige; Fabrice FITCH: Agricola VIII / Obrecht canon III: De tous biens plaine/Tinguel-Brunnen (b); Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Le serviteur a 3; anon: [Le serviteur] a 2; Alexander AGRICOLA (attr): Le serviteur a 4; Fabrice FITCH: Agricola IX: Je nay dueil; Alexander AGRICOLA: Fortuna desperata a 6

Raitis Grigalis, voice; Gawain Glenton, cornett; Baptiste Romain, renaissance violin, vielle; Elizabeth Rumsey, viola d'arco, viola da gamba; Uri Silansky, viola d'arco; Marc Lewon, viola d'arco, gittern, citole, lute; Kirsty Whatley, harp; with: Crawford Young, lute

These two discs follow more or less the same concept. One of the features of the renaissance was the fact that some popular pieces were arranged over and over again and turn up in manuscripts across Europe. There were no such things as Urtext or copyright. Chansons or plain melodies were arranged by adding ornaments or diminutions, texts were changed - from secular to sacred or from one language to another - or a different text was added. Pieces for one or two voices could be extended with additional parts. Both discs include various versions of the same pieces: first we hear the original, then various arrangements by the composer who is at the centre of the respective disc.

Isaac was one of the main representatives of the Franco-Flemish school who left a large oeuvre in which sacred music dominates. Not that much s known about his early years: the year of his birth is uncertain and we know nothing about his musical education. In a document from 1484 his name turns up for the first time in the capacity of composer in Austria. From 1485 to 1497 he worked in Florence at the service of the Medici family. He then returned to Austria as he was appointed court composer to the newly established chapel of Maximilian I in Vienna. In this capacity he travelled across the German-speaking world. He spent the last years of his life in Florence where he renewed his ties with the Medici family. It seems that he was not only held in much esteem as a musician and composer but also as a person. A contemporary stated that "he is good-natured and easy to get along with".

Sacred music, and in particular settings of mass cycles and parts of the propers of the mass, may dominate in Isaac's oeuvre, but it also includes a large number of secular works and pieces without a text. It is hard to say whether the latter were meant as instrumental pieces or their texts have been lost. In the renaissance hardly any purely instrumental music was written - apart from dance music - and instrumentalists mostly played vocal items, often with additions of their own. It is not without reason that secular and textless pieces are placed under one heading in New Grove.

The programme demonstrates the various ways in which Isaac arranged existing material. Fortuna desperata is one of the hits of the renaissance and was used as cantus firmus for masses (p.e. Josquin, Obrecht). Isaac incorporates it into a setting of the Sanctus. One of Isaac's arrangements mixes it with two plainchant tunes (Fortuna disperata/Sancte Petre/Ora pro nobis), an example of adding new texts; whether this piece was intended for vocal performance or not has no relevance here. It was not always the upper voice which was used as the basis for a new piece: in Fortuna desperata a 3 Isaac uses the tenor of the original piece by Busnoys as the upper voice. Ain frelich Wesen is built upon the lowest voice of Barbireau's composition. De tous bien playne is a chanson by Hayne van Ghizeghem (c1445-c1476 or later). Isaac takes it as starting point for a quodlibet in which he includes the beginnings of 16 different chansons. The programme is extended with some original pieces by Isaac.

This programme has been intelligently put together and guarantuees a large amount of variety. It is interesting to hear how Isaac has treated popular melodies of his time - many of which are quite familiar to present-day lovers of renaissance music as well - in several different ways. Les Flamboyants deliver fine performances. The instrumentalists are outstanding, and Els Janssens-Vanmunster and Michael Feyfar sing the vocal items beautifully.

The second disc is devoted to Alexander Agricola, another composer born in Flanders. He was the illegitimate son of an independent businesswoman. Little is known about his early training in music. He may have been a choirboy in a church in Ghent. It has also been suggested that he probably was associated with the local guild of soft-instrument players. The earliest trace of his compositional activities is the copy from 1476 of a piece from his pen. At that time he seems to have worked at the cathedral of Cambrai. His activities in the next ten years are not known. Somewhere in the 1480s he must have entered the service of the French court as in 1491 he left the court without permission. Later that year he was appointed at the cathedral in Florence, where Heinrich Isaac was his colleague. Within a year he went to Naples and then returned to France. Soon he was back in Italy; nothing is known of his whereabouts between 1494 and 1500. Around that year he may have returned to Ghent. He entered the court of Philip the Fair which was in Ghent in 1505 and which travelled to Valladolid in the next year. Here Agricola died.

In his liner-notes Fabrice Fitch underlines the enigmatic character of the composer and his oeuvre. It seems that he cultivated his enigmatic image. Fitch mentions the titles of several pieces which have caused musicologists to discuss their meaning. One example is Pater meus agricola est, which could refer to a text from the gospel of St John but also could be a signature. Translated it means "my father is a farmer", and that is also the English word for his name, which is the Latinized form of his Flemish name, Ackerman. Fitch describes Agricola's style as "obscure, diffuse, even rambling": "[Disguised] repetitions are heard (or not), ostinatos begin and end with no clear signal, short points of imitation, and other intimations of process, come and go".

Pater meus agricola est and Cecus non judicat de coloribus are among the few original pieces from Agricola's pen which have been preserved without a text. The other compositions are arrangements of pre-existing material, "a genre to which Agricola is the single most important contributor". He arranged the famous chanson De tous bien plaine by Hayne van Ghizeghem five times; four of his arrangements are included here. We also hear his two arrangements of Tout par moy, preceded by the original pieces by Walter Frye. Other popular tunes which were arranged are Tandernaken and Fortuna desperata.

In addition to the pieces by Agricola the Ensemble Leones performs three works by Fabrice Fitch which are part of his agricolies which represent an attempt "to project Agricola's sense of play, and his inventive treatment of borrowed material, into a contemporary context". This may make some sense in the context of this programme, but it is hard to swallow for those, who have no ear for contemporary music. I could do without these modern sounds and if I return to this disc I will certainly skip them.

This disc includes a substantial part of Agricola's instrumental music. That makes it a very important release. The interpretations are quite comparable with those of Les Flamboyants and are equally convincing; several artists take part in both recordings. The vocal items are sung by Raitis Grigalis; his pronunciation of the Dutch text of Tandernaken is almost impeccable.

These two discs are great additions to the discography and shed light on two composers who are unjustly neglected.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Leones
Les Flamboyants

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