musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Christmas music of the Renaissance from France and Italy

[I] "Christmas with the Shepherds"
The Marian Consort
Dir: Rory McCleery
rec: Jan 13 - 15, 2014, Oxford, Chapel of Merton College
Delphian Records - DCD34145 (© 2014) (62'55")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus a 5; Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis a 4; Jean MOUTON (before 1459-1522): Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe a 4; Puer natus est nobis a 4; Quaeramus cum pastoribus a 4; Annibale STABILE (c1535-1595): Quaeramus cum pastoribus a 8a

Gwendolen Martin, Emma Walshe, soprano; Rory McCleery, alto; Guy Cutting, Ashley Turnell, tenor; Christopher Borrett, Rupert Reid, bass; with Daniel Collins, David Gould, altoa

[II] Cristóbal DE MORALES (c1500-1553): "O Magnum Mysterium - Christmas Motets"
Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes
rec: Jan 6 - 9, 2013, Stiftskirche Bassum
CPO - 777 820-2 (© 2013) (69'18")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Ave Maria, gratia plena a 5; Ave regina coelorum a 5; Candida virginitas a 4; Cum natus esset Iesus a 5; Ecce virgo concipiet a 4; Exaltata est Sancta Dei Genetrix a 4; Missus est Gabriel angelus a 4; O magnum mysterium a 4; Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis a 4; Puer natus est nobis a 3; Salva nos, stella maris a 5; Salve Regina a 5; Sancta et immaculata virginitas a 4; Veni, Domine, et noli tardare a 6

Franz Vitzthum, Alex Potter, alto; Achim Schulz, Bernd O. Fröhlich, tenor (alto); Maciej Gosman, Jan Van Elsacker, tenor; Ulfried Staber, Kees Jan de Koning, bass

[III] "Au Sainct Nau"
Ensemble Clément Janequin; Trio Musica Humana
Dir: Dominique Visse
rec: June 22 - 25, 2013, Laval-en-Brie, Eglise St Laurent
Alpha - 198 (© 2014) (65'34")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: [Plaisir n'ay plus que vivre en desconfort]; Jacques ARCADELT (c1505-1568): Missa Noe, noe (Kyrie; Agnus Dei); Eustache DU CAURROY (1549-1605): Fantaisie No 4 'Conditor alme siderum'a; Fantaisie No 30 'Une jeune fillette'a; Fantaisie No 31 'Une jeune fillette'a; [Une jeune pucelle]; Guillaume COSTELEY (c1530-1606): Allons gay bergiere; Claude GOUDIMEL (1514/20-1572): [Esprits divins, chantons dans la nuit sainte]; Clément JANEQUIN (c1485-1558): [Il estoyt und fillette]; Jean MOUTON: Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe; Loyset PIÉTON (fl c1530-1545): O beata infantia; plainchant: Conditor alme siderum; [Conditor le jour de Noël]; Claudin DE SERMISY (c1490-1562): [Au bois de deuil]; [Dison Nau à pleine teste]; [L'onne sonne une cloche]; [Vous perdez temps heretiques infames]
Titles between brackets refer to contrafacta

[ECJ] Dominique Visse, alto; Hugues Primard, tenor; Vincent Bouchot, baritone; Renaud Delaigue, François Fauché, bass; Yoann Moulin, organ (soloa)
[TMH] Yann Rolland, alto; Martial Pauliat, tenor; Igor Bouin, baritone

The three discs to be reviewed here include music of different kinds and from different regions in Europe, but are connected in several ways. The starting point is the disc by the Marian Consort. It includes motets of a specific kind by the French composer Jean Mouton. The Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales took one of these as the starting point for a parody mass. Jacques Arcadelt did the same with another motet by Mouton which the Ensemble Clément Janequin included in its programme of music for Christmas from the French renaissance. The latter sheds light on the influence of secular music on Christmas repertoire.

Let us start with Jean Mouton. He was probably born in Samer in France, and that makes him one of the relatively few non-Flemish masters in a time that these dominated the music scene. It seems that in 1502 he joined the chapel of Anne of Brittanny, the French queen and wife of King Louis XII. Mouton remained attached to the French court until the end of his life. After the Queen's death he served the King and then his successor François I. During a meeting of François and Pope Leo X in Bologna in 1515 the latter became acquainted with the musicians of the French King and was quite impressed. Some contemporary writers state that Mouton became one of Leo's favourite composers. This could explain that many of his motets are preserved in the archive of the Sistine Chapel.

The Marian Consort features motets which include the word noe; this word is repeated a number of times. It has been suggested that such motets were a kind of special genre which was particularly popular under Pope Leo. "Thomas Schmidt-Beste has theorised that these papal chapel 'Noe' pieces formed a part of the repertoire of the motetto a pranza: music to be sung at the pope's dinner on one of four occasions throughout the year, one of which was Christmas." Some of the 'noe' motets by Mouton have been selected for this recording. The best-known among them is Quaeramus cum pastoribus which survives in 27 manuscript and printed sources - some of them preserved in far-away places as Aberdeen and Guatemala - and in intabulations of French, Italian and Spanish origin. It was also taken as the model for his Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus by Cristóbal de Morales. This mass seems to have been written for the Sistine Chapel and that makes Mouton's motet a logical choice as the singers of the chapel must have sung it many times. Morales extends the number of parts from four to five, with divided basses, and reworks motifs from Mouton's motet throughout his mass without quoting his model literally. At some moments the number of voices is reduced: 'Et ascendit' (Credo) is set for four voices, the Benedictus is sung without the participation of the two basses. The second Agnus Dei is for four voices, but in the last Morales adds a sixth voice by splitting the soprano part.

The Marian Consort also includes a motet from Morales' pen: Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis. According to Rory McCleery it clearly draws its inspiration from Mouton's Christmas motets and displays many of the compositional techniques characteristic of the French composer. The largest part is sung by two pairs of duetting voices which come together at the end. This is also a 'noe motet': both sections end with the exclamations: "noe, noe". It is also part of the disc which the ensemble Weser-Renaissance devoted to Christmas motets by the Spanish master.

He was from Seville and it seems likely that he received his musical education from Francisco de Peñalosa and Pedro de Escobar. However, the most decisive influence on his development as a composer came from Rome where he joined the papal chapel in 1535. His second book of motets was devoted to Pope Paul III. In the 1540s he published a large part of his compositional output, among them two books with masses and a book with Magnificat settings. In 1545 he was granted a leave of ten months; he settled in Spain and never returned, mainly due to his ill health. The strong Roman influence on his oeuvre has resulted in his being considered a 'foreign composer' in Spain.

His motets found a wide dissemination and have been preserved in countries across Europe and in the Americas. One notable aspect is especially emphasized by Christiane Wiesenfeldt in her liner-notes to the CPO recording: the fact that many of his motets were apparently sung in parts of Europe which had joined the Lutheran Reformation. That can be explained from the fact that a number of texts didn't conflict with Lutheran doctrines. That goes especially for those which are settings of biblical texts, such as Missus est Gabriel angelus, a setting of verses from the first chapter of St Luke. However, sometimes she seems to miss the reasons of disapproval from Lutheran circles, for instance as she writes that Salva nos, stella maris "must have hardly caused tempers to flare". But already the opening line - "Save us, Star of the sea" - was clearly unacceptable from a Lutheran point of view as Luther denied that Mary had the power to save human beings. It is certainly no coincidence that this motet was "primarily circulating in Spain". And Ave Maria opens with a biblical text - the angel saluting Mary - but goes on with a free text, including a phrase like "O Mother of God, pray for us sinners that we may see you with the elect". This was certainly not acceptable for Protestants.

Music from Morales' time does not include text expression as we find it in the compositions of, for instance, Rore and Lassus. However, there are some moments where the text is illustrated. In Ecce, virgo concipiet the words "Deus, Fortis" (God, mighty) are especially singled out. Cum natus esset Iesus is a setting of the story of the visit of the wise men and their meeting with Herod (St Matthew 2). The second section which is an account of the conversation of Herod with the high priests and scribes and with the wise men is scored for low voices and closes in homophony.

Let us return to Mouton. A second 'noe motet' from his pen is Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe whose text includes parts of Psalm 24. Here the word noe is even more frequently used than in the previous motet. Four of the five sentences start with three 'noe' exclamations, and the motet closes with another three. At least one parody mass is based upon this motet, the Missa Noe noe for six voices by Jacques Arcadelt, one of only three masses from his pen. He was a Flemish composer, probably born near Namur, and has become especially known for his madrigals. The Ensemble Clément Janequin has included the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei from this Mass in its programme of French music for Christmas. The Kyrie is sung here with tropes: "Here we have chosen to alternate polyphony and Gregorian chant but singing, in place of the Kyrie Fons bonitatis of solemn holy days, a Kyrie le jour de Noël, which relates to the whole story of the Nativity in textual interpolations going back to the mediaeval practice of the trope". It is not quite clear whether this is indicated by the composer. The Kyrie is preceded by Mouton's motet. Another piece of 'classical' polyphony is O beata infantia, a motet by Loyset Pieton, a composer about whom little is known but whose works were published by Italian, German and Flemish printers.

The main focus of this disc is on the genre of the contrafactum which means that an existing piece is sung to a new text. The programme opens with two versions of Conditor alme siderum, a hymn used at Vespers during Advent. The first is a troped version: every second stanza is followed by "Noe noe noe". The second is a contrafactum: the Latin text has been replaced by a text in the vernacular which enumerates the foods and beverages of the Christmas feast. It is one of the pieces in the programme which documents the secular influences in French noël repertoire. Some texts are sung to chansons. Claudin de Sermisy's chanson Au joly bois is sung here with the text Au bois de deuil: "In the wood of grief, in the shade of cares, we were in this world full of sorrow, when Jesus Christ came into this world, taking human form in a virgin". The contrafactum of Il estoit une fillette by Clément Janequin even opens with the same line: "There was a maid", but then goes on: "whom the Son of God wished to love". Sacred pieces were also used for a new text: Esprits divins, chantons dans la nuit sainte is sung to Claude Goudimel's setting of the versification of Psalm 137, Estans assis aux rives aquatiques which found a place in the Genevan Psalter and is still sung today. The conflict between Catholics and Huguenots didn't leave the Christmas repertoire untouched. L'on sonne une cloche is sung to Sermisy's chanson Harri bourriquet; the words "Harri bourriquet" are even included in the new text as a refrain. It "thus becomes a sort of Huguenot carol of a satirical vein, in which the 'form and manner of saying mass' are mocked in multiple strophes puntuated by the evocation of an ass's braying".

We return to Mouton for the last time. Puer natus est nobis is ranked among the 'Christmas song motets'. "[This] compositional form involves the combination of a number of different liturgical and non-liturgical texts, often with their associated melodies." However, this motet can also be ranked among the 'noe motets': it ends with "noe, noe, Alleluia". The programme which the Marian Consort recorded started with Mouton's motet Quaeramus cum pastoribus and ends with another setting, by Annibale Stabile. He belongs to a later generation - he was a contemporary of Palestrina - and worked for more than ten years at the Collegio Romano in Rome. This motet is for eight voices in two choirs which makes it a specimen of the polychoral style in Rome which was in some ways different from that in Venice. The phrases pass from one choir to the other; the two join each other only at specially important passages and at the closing phrase. This motet also reflects the influences of Mouton's setting.

Having given a description of what one can expect from these two discs it is time to assess their artistic merits. First of all, these discs are all very interesting in regard to repertoire. Jean Mouton is a pretty familiar name but his music is not often performed and he is not well represented on disc. That makes the recording of the Marian Consort most welcome. The programme has been well put together, with a strong thematic unity. That makes it all the more regrettable that the performances are largely disappointing. The tempi are mostly rather slow. Quaeramus cum pastoribus has also been recorded by James O'Donnell with the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. He only needs 4'50" versus the 5'41" of the Marian Consort. The latter takes 4'41" for Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe whereas the Ensemble Clément Janequin needs only 3'21". And Morales Pastores dicite is considerably faster in the performance of Weser-Renaissance: 3'33" vs 4'02". This leads to the conclusion that the Marian Consort is consistently slower than the competition, except some sections of the Mass (recorded by O'Donnell). I wouldn't consider that not too much of a problem if the performances were otherwise convincing. But they are not. The joyful character of the 'noe motets' hardly comes off, and not only because of the slowish tempi. There is also a slight but very annoying vibrato in some of the voices. I have noticed that in another recording of this ensemble which withheld me from wholeheartedly recommend it.

The shortcomings are especially noticeable in comparison with the performances by the competition. The Ensemble Clément Janequin sings Mouton's Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe so much better that it seems a completely different piece. And Pastores dicite by Morales comes off far better in the interpretation of Weser-Renaissance. The latter has delivered one of the most beautiful recordings of classical polyphony I have heard in recent years. The ensemble comprises eight outstanding voices which sing in different combinations. They all blend wonderfully well and together the performers have produced a gorgeous and compelling sequence of music for Christmas. Very different but wonderful in its own way is the disc with French music by the Ensemble Clément Janequin. Beautiful voices, great singing and a perfect expression of the content of the wide variety of pieces selected for the programme. An important bonus is that the ensemble consistently makes use of historical pronunciation. Their performances prove that this is much more than of academic interest.

The two latter discs can be recommended without any reservation. Only those who want to add music by Mouton to their collection could probably investigate the Marian Consort disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

The Marian Consort
Weser-Renaissance Bremen

CD Reviews