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Heinrich ISAAC (c1450 - 1517): Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen

Cinquecento

rec: Jan 6 - 8, 2020, Vienna, Kartause Mauerbach
Hyperion - CDA68337 (© 2021) (78'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Heinrich ISAAC: Judaea et Jerusalem a 4; Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen a 6a; O decus ecclesiae a 5; Parce, Domine, populo tuo a 4; Quis dabit pacem populo timenti? a 4; Recordare, Jesu Christe a 5; Sive vivamus, sive moriamur a 4; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450/55-1521): Comment peult avoir joye? a 4

Terry Wey, alto; Achim Schulz, Tore Tom Denys, tenor; Tim Scott Whiteley, baritone; Ulfried Staber, bass; with Jan Petryka, tenora

Josquin Desprez was considered the most important composer in his time, and he probably still is seen that way today. However, Heinrich Isaac was hardly less brilliant, and his career attests to that, as he was in the service of two of the main centres of music and art: the Medici court in Florence and the imperial court in Vienna.

Isaac was from Flanders or Brabant and was born somewhere between 1450 and 1455. In 1484 he is first mentioned, in the capacity as court composer in Innsbruck. By 1484 he was in Florence where he was in the service of the Medicis. He apparently always remained in contact with this powerful family, even though the latter were banished from Florence in 1494. Two years later Isaac entered the service of Emperor Maximilian I. When the Medicis returned to Florence and a member of the family was elected Pope as Leo X they granted Isaac a pension. 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".

The present disc documents the two stages of his career, but not in chronological order. The earliest work is O decus ecclesiae (O glory of the world, virgin), an unusually long motet (here more than 12 minutes) for five voices in two sections. It is based on the hexachord, which is in the tenor. "In each of the motetís two sections, the tenor part systematically assembles and dismantles the hexachord one note at a time, beginning with its lowest pitch. A pedagogical aim cannot be ruled out, though a symbolic one seems more likely", David J. Burn writes in his liner-notes. The second Florentine motet is Quis dabit pacem populo timenti?, written at the occasion of the death of Isaac's patron, Lorenzo de' Medici, in 1492. The piece opens with these words: "Who will grant peace to a fearful people, when throughout the cities the enraged gods bid some thing be born?" This reference to peace can be explained from the fact that Lorenzo played a major role as a peacemaker between the Italian states. Soon after his death the country fell victim to war again. The motet does not include any specific religious connotations, but rather roots in classical literature.

The Missa Wohlauff gut Gsell von hinnen dates from Isaac's time in Vienna, but has its roots in Florence as well. This explains why it is followed here by Josquin's chanson Comment peult avoir joye?, or rather his polyphonic version of a popular song. In his time in Florence Isaac became acquainted with both this song and Josquin's version, and used it as the foundation of a mass for four voices. When he was in Vienna, he decided to arrange this mass, and took the title of the German version of the same song. The arrangement was quite extensive. All but one section of the mass were taken over, but only two sections remained in their original place. The rest was given a new text and re-ordered. The mass was also divided into considerably more sections, which offered the possibility to insert entirely new music. These are set for six voices. This explains that in the course of the mass four- and six-part sections alternate. Those sections which were taken over from the four-part version did not remain unaltered: in two additional music was added to make them longer, and in two others two voices were added, a second high one and a second low one. The result is one of Isaac's longest masses. The melody of the song is clearly audible in the upper part, and one will immediately recognize it, when one listens to Josquin's setting.

The remaining four motets were written in Vienna. Parce, Domine, populo tuo is a four-part setting of words from the book of the prophet Joel. The cantus firmus, which is in the tenor, has not been identified as yet. There is something special with the other three. Sive vivamus is a setting of a text from Paul's letter to the Romans, but has also been preserved in a version with the text of the Marian antiphon Ave regina caelorum. Burn states that neither text is probably the original one that was set by Isaac. If this is correct, we have to do here with a contrafactum. That is also the case with Recordare, Jesu Christe, which originally was a Marian offertory, but was later 'lutheranized', in that all references to Mary were replaced by references to Jesus. Judaea et Jerusalem is a responsory for the Christmas Vigil; the chant melody is in the bass. Its authenticity is questionable; it has been suggested that it is a work by Jacob Obrecht, and Burn believes that "the musical style leans slightly in Obrecht's favour, but is hardly decisive."

This piece rounds off a most interesting survey of sacred works by Heinrich Isaac, whose reputation is higher than the attention payed to his oeuvre in our time. This was one of the reasons that Jordi Savall recorded a 'musical biography' to mark the commemoration of his death. Considering the size and the variety of Isaac's oeuvre, there is still much work to do. This disc is a very welcome contribution to our knowledge of his compositional activities. And it is an impressive contribution. Cinquecento, singing with one voice per part, is a top-class ensemble. The blending of the voices is superb, and even in passages for six voices, the musical fabric remains transparent, which allows the listener to follow the individual lines. The legato is perfect, and the use of dynamics very natural. Cinquecento has a clear preference for the performance and recording of relatively little-known repertoire. That cannot be appreciated enough. The opportunities offered by Hyperion are a matter of good luck, both with regard to recording and documentation. The booklet is of the usual standard.

This disc is another jewel in the crown of both Cinquecento and Hyperion.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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