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"L'héritage de Petrus Alamire"

Huelgas Ensemble
Dir: Paul Van Nevel

rec: August 19, 2015 (live), Antwerp, Sint-Pauluskerk
Cypres - CYP1673 (© 2015) (75'07")
Liner-notes: E/F/N; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon (c1500): Missa 6 vocum N'avez point veu (Sanctus; Agnus Dei); Nicolas CHAMPION (c1470-1533): Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena a 5 (Sanctus; Agnus Dei); Robert DE FÉVIN (fl c1500-1515): Missa 4 vocum supra La sol mi fa re (Sanctus; Agnus Dei); Mathurin FORESTIER (fl c1500-1515): Missa 5 vocum supra Baises moy (Sanctus; Agnus Dei); JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Missa Malheur me bat a 4 (Sanctus; Agnus Dei); Johannes STICHELER (fl c1500): Missa Se j'avoye porpoin de veleur a 6 (Sanctus; Agnus Dei)

Axelle Bernage, Michaela Riener, Poline Renou, superius; Sabine Lutzenberger, Katelijne Van Laethem, mezzo; Achim Schulz, Olivier Coiffet, altus; Stefan Berghammer, Adriaan De Koster, Matthew Vine, Tom Phillips, tenor; Frederik Sjollema, baritonans; Tom Scott Whiteley, Guillaume Olry, bassus

In 2014 the label Obsidian released a disc with the title "The Spy's Choirbook - Petrus Alamire & the Court of Henry VIII". The present disc is also devoted to Petrus Alamire (c1470-1536), one of the most renowned music scribes of the renaissance. He was of German birth; his real name was Peter Imhoff or Van den Hove. He had many contacts with political leaders across Europe, such as Maximilian, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Margaret of Austria, governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. As a result he almost inevitably played a certain role in politics. There is documentary evidence that Alamire acted as a spy for Henry VIII against Richard de la Pole, duke of Suffolk and last member of the House of York who claimed the English throne. He had many contacts across Europe, with musicians and composers, the nobility, ecclesiastical institutions, some of the leading humanists and with the rich and famous, such as the Fuggers, a family of bankers.

Alamire was at the head of a workshop at the Burgundian and Habsburg courts of Brussels and Malines. It produced no fewer than 45 choir books and six part-books which include music by some of the most famous composers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but also pieces by little-known or even unknown composers. The latter is literally the case with the first item on the programme of a disc with mass sections from Alamire's production, recorded live by the Huelgas Ensemble.

Masses take the most important part of Alamire's manuscripts: 181. This reflects the music practice of the time as masses were sung on a daily basis, independent of the time in the ecclesiastical year. Many masses are specimens of the parody practice: composers often used pre-existing music - liturgical chant, a motet or secular music, such as madrigals or chansons - as the basis for their masses. The way they used the material from these pieces was very different. Sometimes complete phrases were used, in other cases melodic motifs, either from the upper voice or from lower voices.

The way the programme has been put together offers the opportunity to demonstrate the various ways of using the parody technique. That is to say: if the original music is known. The disc opens with the Missa sex vocum N'avez point veu. Not only is the composer not mentioned in Alamire's copy, the chanson the title refers to is also not identified. That makes it impossible to find out what exactly the composer has selected from his source and how he used it. In the Sanctus he made use of the canon, a technique which frequently appears in compositions by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school.

The other composers are known, but some names are not very familiar. Nicolas Champion is certainly someone whose name doesn't often appear in concert programmes or on disc. He was a singer and worked in the court chapels of Philip the Fair and Charles V; he was an ancestor of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, the founder of the French harpsichord school in the 17th century. His Missa de sancta Maria Magdalena is based on several Marian antiphons. Notable are the variable rhythms in the Sanctus.

Johannes Sticheler is a completely unknown quantity: he has no entry in New Grove and the Missa Se j'avoye porpoin de veleur for six voices is the only known composition from his hand. The composer of the chanson which Sticheler used is not known, but here the frequent repetition of a pattern of notes indicate that this is taken from that chanson. The Sanctus includes a striking repetition of a phrase on the words "in excelsis" in the upper voice. As so often in Franco-Flemish sacred music some episodes are set for reduced voices; here the Benedictus is for three low voices (tenor, baritone, bass).

The name of Févin is better known, but Robert has remained very much in the shadow of his brother Antoine. Not much is known about Robert; it seems that he was master of the Savoy ducal chapel. His output is small: a setting of Alma redemptoris mater, three masses and one Credo which is also attributed to Josquin. The latter's influence on Févin is evident, also in the Missa quattuor vocum supra la sol mi fa re. The motif the title refers to frequently appears throughout the Mass.

Josquin also turns up in the next work: Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Missa quinque vocum supra baises moy, which is based on one of Josquin's best-known chansons. This is one of three masses from the pen of Mathurin Forestier; two of them are based on pieces by Josquin; the third, on the famous anonymous song L'homme armé, is also attributed to Nicolas Gombert. Little is known about Forestier; he probably was a singer in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. He also makes use of the canon technique, especially in the Agnus Dei. The third Agnus Dei follows another tradition of Franco-Flemish mass settings: the addition of voices. Here Forestier extends the number of voices from five to seven.

As he was one of the main representatives of the Franco-Flemish school Josquin Desprez could not be omitted. He is represented with his Missa Malheur me bat, which is based on a chanson by Johannes Martini (c1430/40-1497) or a composer with the name of Malcourt or Malcort (fl c1470-1480). In his liner-notes Paul Van Nevel mentiones Philippe Caron as the composer, but I can't find any reference to that name in New Grove or elsewhere. Here Josquin also makes use of the canon technique: the second Agnus Dei includes a canon in the second for tenor and bass. In the last Agnus Dei the number of voices is extended from four to six.

The programme of this disc is unusual in its concentration on the same sections from five different masses. It allows a comparison of the way the various composers treat those sections and the techniques they make use of. There are similarities and differences, showing how the same techniques - for instance the canon - can lead to different results. Music like that performed here is not expressive in the baroque sense of the word or even in the way madrigals from the second half of the 16th century often were. These mass sections require a more straightforward approach, and that is perfectly realised here. The singing is of the highest calibre, the ensemble and the intonation are immaculate. However, the singers are certainly able to create a kind of excitement now and then, emphasizing the sheer brilliance of some pieces. Among them are the Sanctus from Sticheler's mass and the two sections from the mass by Josquin.

The fact that most composers represented here are hardly known is another strong argument in favour of this disc. Lovers of renaissance polyphony shouldn't miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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