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"Music for the Court of Maximilian II"

rec: June 17 - 19, 2006, Retz (Austria), Dominikanerkirche
Hyperion - CDA67579 (© 2007) (67'35")

Antonius GALLI (?-1565): Missa Ascendetis post filium a 6; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Pacis amans a 6; Pieter MAESSENS (c1505-1562): Discessu dat tota tuo a 6; Jacobus VAET (c1529-1567): Ascendetis post filium 'In laudem Invictiss. Rom. Imp. Max II' a 6; Conditor alme siderum a 6; Continuo lacrimas 'In mortem Clementis non Papae' a 6; O quam gloriosum a 4; Videns Dominus a 5

Terry Wey, Jakob Huppmann, alto; Tore Tom Denys, Thomas Künne, tenor; Tim Scott Whiteley, baritone; Ulfried Staber, bass

Until the beginning of the 19th century many composers were in the service of emperors, kings or aristocrats. As a result music and politics were strongly intertwined. In the 16th century the Habsburg dynasty was by far the most powerful in Europe, ruling the largest part of Central Europe, the Low Countries and Spain. And as music was an essential part of everyday life, and certainly in the life of the Habsburg family, many pieces were written in their honour or for special occasions like an enthronement, a marriage or a birth.

Composers who were members of the emperor's chapel were first-rate musicians. Most of them are still well-known and their works are regularly performed and recorded. But there are exceptions, and one of them is Jacobus Vaet. He was born about 1529 in the Southern Netherlands, in 1543 he entered the Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk in Kortrijk as a choirboy, and in 1547 he entered the University of Louvain. In the 1550s he was a member of the chapel of emperor Charles V, and in 1554 he became Kapellmeister of Charles's nephew, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, whom he followed to Vienna where Maximilian was crowned as emperor Maximilian II in 1564. Jacobus Vaet was held in high esteem. In 1564 a collection of 23 motets was printed in which works by Vaet appeared alongside pieces by Lassus – apparently they were considered equals. Therefore it is appropriate that a motet by Lassus has been included in the programme on this disc. After his premature death many eulogies on Vaet were written, for instance by Jacob Handl (Gallus) and Antonius Galli, who also composed a mass on a motet by Vaet. Although Vaet didn't live very long, his oeuvre is pretty large and includes nine mass settings and 66 motets. From 1961 to 1968 a complete edition of his works was published, but for some reason he never made it into the programmes of ensembles for renaissance music. But his works are being rediscovered in our time: apart from this disc the German label Ars Musici has started a Vaet edition with the Dufay Ensemble. The volumes which have been released so far show the unmistakeable qualities of Vaet's music, and the performances are splendid, so they can be recommended to anyone interested in Vaet's music.

This disc is definitely a good appetizer. The motet Ascendens post filium is a so-called state motet, a piece which is particularly written in honour of a royal person, in this case Maximilian II. It is one of 17 state motets Vaet has written. It is a paraphrase of verses from 1 Kings 1, in which Solomon is anointed king of Israel at the orders of his father David. At the end of the first section, which says that "I shall teach him, so that he may be your ruler", Vaet uses running scales to express joy, and the ensemble is taking the liberty to sing this forte. This use of dynamics is one of the features of this ensemble's performances. It is also used at several moments in the Missa Ascendetis post filium by Antonius Galli, which is based on Vaet's motet. In 1554 he was listed as Cantor of Maximilian's chapel, and since then he was steadily promoted; at the end of his life he was Hofprediger (court preacher). The mass makes frequent use of the most characteristic motif from Vaet's motet, the ascending scale with which it begins. Rhythmic alterations and homophony are used to single out specific passages.

The other pieces on this disc show different aspects of renaissance composing. Vaet's motet Conditor alme siderum is an alternatim setting of a hymn sung at Vespers during Advent. The odd-numbered verses are to be sung in plainchant. The first piece on this disc, Vaet's motet Videns Dominus, is about the raising of Lazarus, and here again the ensemble sings forte, at the end of the first section, when Jesus is quoted crying "Lazarus, come forth". Ascending and descending scales depict the opening of the tomb.

The motet Discessu dat tota tuo by Pieter Maessens is a logical addition to the programme. Maessens was a member of the chapel of Maximilian's father Ferdinand and was responsible for the recruitment of personnel to the choirs of both Ferdinand and Maximilian. It is very likely that it was through him that Vaet entered Maximilian's chapel. Maessens's motet is "an enigmatic puzzle canon based on Maximilian's name", Stephen Rice writes in the booklet. This procedure is known as soggetto cavato "because the subject is 'carved' from the dedicatee's name". "Maessens's soggetto is then imitated in the lower fifth in the first part of the motet, and subsequently at the upper fourth. A Latin poem indicates that – in addition to the two canonic voices – the discant and tenor parts can be reversed, making multiple versions of the piece possible." Intellectual games like this are one of the aspects of renaissance composing.

The disc ends with a piece which was not composed for the Habsburg chapel. Continuo lacrimas was written "in mortem Clementis non Papae", at the occasion of the death of Jacobus Clemens non Papa, one of the most famous representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, who died in 1555 or 1556. Vaet had also used one of Clemens's motets for a parody mass. In this motet Vaet uses the introitus from the Requiem Mass, 'Requiem aeternam', as cantus firmus.

This is the first recording of the ensemble Cinquecento. It consists of six singers from five countries: Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the UK. They are in particular interested in lesser-known repertoire from the renaissance. The ensemble couldn't have made a better start than with this disc. I very much like the sound of the ensemble, which is full and warm, and at the same time very clear and bright. Fortunately there are no wobbly voices here. One feature of this recording is the relaxed way of singing of the ensemble: even at the top of their range – and some notes are very high – the upper voices don't sound stressed at any moment. The recording is also brilliant from an acoustical point of view: it has just the right atmosphere for this kind of music. If there is a point of criticism it is the Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts: I sincerely doubt this has been the way Latin was pronounced in the Habsburg lands.

I strongly recommend this disc because of the quality of the music and of the performance, and on top of that it brings repertoire that hasn't been recorded before.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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