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CD reviews






Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent

[I] "Missa Conceptio Tua - Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent"
Schola Antiqua of Chicago
Dir: Michael Alan Anderson
rec: Dec 8, 2012, Chicago, Ill., St Josaphat Parish
Naxos - 8.573260 ( 2014) (57'29")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Hail Mary, full of grace; Nova, nova!; There is no rose of swytch vertu; Pierre de LA RUE (c1452-1518): Missa Conceptio tua a 5; plainchant: Alma redemptoris mater; O Antiphons (O Sapientia & Magnificat; O Adonai; O Radix Iesse; O Clavis David; O Oriens; O Rex Gentium; O Emmanuel)

Laura Lynch, Stephanie Sheffield, soprano; Matthew Dean, Andrew Fredel, Keith Murphy, Frank Villella, tenor; William Chin, Luciano Laurentiu, A. Peter Olson Jr., baritone; Jack Parton, Wilbur Pauley, bass

[II] JOSQUIN DESPREZ (1450/55 - 1521): Missa Ave maris stella
Cappella Pratensis
Dir: Stratton Bull
rec: Nov 6 - 9, 2013, Vieusart, Eglise Saint-Martin
Challenge Classics - CC72632 ( 2014) (57'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Score Missa Ave maris stella

[in order of appearance]
plainchant/Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474)/JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Hymnus: Ave maris stella; plainchant; [introitus] Rorate celi; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Missa Ave maris stella a 4 (Kyrie; Gloria); plainchant; [gradual] Tollite portas; [alleluia] Ave Maria; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Missa Ave maris stella a 4 (Credo); plainchant: [offertory] Ave Maria; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: [motet] Mittit ad virginem a 4; plainchant/anon: Prefatio (with polyphonic responses); JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Missa Ave maris stella a 4 (Sanctus); plainchant/anon: Pater noster (with polyphonic responses); JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Missa Ave maris stella a 4 (Agnus Dei); plainchant: [communion] Ecce virgo; JOSQUIN DESPREZ: [motet] Missus est Gabriel angelus a 4

Stratton Bull, Andrew Hallock, superius; Christopher Kale, Lior Leibovici, altus; Olivier Berten, Peter de Laurentiis, tenor; Lionel Meunier, Pieter Stas, bassus

In the period we call the Middle Ages two developments took place more or less simultaneously: the growing importance of Christmas in the church calender - in the early Christian Church Easter was the main feast, as it still is in the Eastern Orthodox Churches - and the dissemination of the veneration of Mary. These two became strongly intermingled which is hardly surprising considering the role of Mary in the story of the birth of Jesus. The two discs reviewed here bear witness to this development.

The main piece on the Naxos disc is the Missa Conceptio tua by Pierre de La Rue. It is a parody mass which is based on the antiphon for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This feast is founded on the belief that Mary was uniquely and miraculously conceived in sinlessness in the womb of her mother, apocryphically called St Anne. This view was not universally embraced; it was disputed until it was proclaimed as a dogma in 1854. It was Pope Sixtus IV who established the annual feast day of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December in 1477. That means that it was celebrated during the period of Advent. This justifies the inclusion of La Rue's mass in a programme of music for Advent.

In his liner-notes Michael Alan Anderson provides some interesting information regarding the place of this Mass in the doctrinal debate about the immaculate conception. He points out that the text of the antiphon says nothing about the nature of the Virgin's conception. "Instead, there are extra-musical factors that guide La Rue's Mass for the Conception toward an immaculate position. The intricate illuminations accompanying the Mass in some of the sources provide an unambiguous apology for the Immaculate Conception, as musicologist Bonnie Blackburn has demonstrated." These concern miniatures depicting two defenders of this view, accompanied by a relevant quotation. Obviously this doesn't tell us anything about La Rue's personal view - at that time a composer's view was pretty irrelevant anyway - but rather about that of his employers at the Habsburg-Burgundian court.

Musically speaking it is a remarkable work, especially because its low range. "The Bass II voice generally hovers around the D below the bass clef with some regularity, including at many cadences". Anderson adds that it is impossible to say with certainty that La Rue's works were sung at written pitch, but the overall range of many of his works seems to suggest that he had some singers with very low voices at his disposal. The low voices do a remarkable job here, creating a great amount of sonority. In comparison the tenors seem to have some problems with the tessitura of their parts now and then. They sing well, but sometimes they sound a little uncomfortable.

The disc opens with the seven O Antiphons which begin with various names given to Christ, such as sapientia (wisdom), radix Iesse (root of Jesse) and oriens (rising star). These antiphons were sung before and after the Magnificat from 17 to 23 December. Here we hear these antiphons in a version from a 12th-century liturgical book from the Abbey of St Denis. Only the first antiphon is combined with the Magnificat, the others are sung independently. Alma redemptoris mater is the oldest of the four Marian antiphons. The version recorded here is from a 14th-century Portuguese manuscript.

The programme ends with three English carols. These are non-liturgical songs in Latin or English which begin with a burden (refrain). The three carols recorded here are from a 15th-century manuscript. Hail Mary, full of grace is entirely in English, the other two are also in English but include some Latin words or phrases. The performers sing in historical pronunciation, and that makes it rather odd that - as far as I can tell - no attempts have been made to do the same in the Latin works. There is no rose of swych vertu is sung by a soprano and a tenor, but the former is too dominant.

Taking all things into account this is a quite interesting disc. That especially regards the repertoire: La Rue's Mass is recorded here for the first time. Despite some critical remarks the performances are rather good and this is definitely a disc lovers of ancient liturgical music will like to add to their collection.

A Mass is also the core of the second disc: the Missa Ave maris stella by Josquin Desprez. It is put into a liturgical context: the Saturday Mass for the Blessed Virgin during Advent in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Again Pope Sixtus IV pops up in the liner-notes: in 1483 he dedicated the chapel to the Blessed Virgin with a celebratory Mass on her Assumption feast. The Saturday Mass documented here focused on the Annuntiation. The feast of the Annunciation itself, on 25 March, fell almost always within the period of Lent, and that was a time that polyphony was forbidden. It is therefore not surprising that music connected to this event was performed during the Advent period. "[The] gospel of the Saturday Mass of the Blessed Virgin from the beginning of Advent until the Feast of her Purification on 2 February related the Annunciation story. In Josquin's time the Saturday Marian Mass and Vespers service became favourite occasions for Marian polyphony, and it is this liturgy that provides the most convincing framework in which to situate a selection of Josquin's music for the Annunciation", M. Jennifer Bloxam writes in her liner-notes.

The programme opens with the Vespers hymn Ave maris stella which is an alternatim setting with verses by Guillaume Dufay and Josquin Desprez. This attests to the stylistic changes in a period of about 50 years. This is followed by the liturgical framework which includes Josquin's Mass. The Proper chants are taken from two graduals copied during the reign of Pope Paul II in the 1460s which Josquin must have known and used.

The Cappella Pratensis prefers to sing from copies of the original partbooks, and that is also the case here. One of these includes Josquin's Mass. They sing with two singers per part; the sections in two and three parts are sung by solo voices. The ensemble includes only adult male singers; this is in line with the practice in the Sistine Chapel where no boys sang. The Cappella Pratensis is one of the ensembles which pay attention to a 'correct' pronunciation of Latin. In most cases the pronunciation is used which was common in the region where a performance must have taken place or where the music was written. Here a different procedure is followed. It is assumed that not only Josquin but also most of his colleagues were native French speakers, and because of that Latin is pronounced with a French accent. But the celebrant's recitations are pronounced with an Italian accent, imagining an Italian cleric presiding.

This is an unusual approach which seems up to debate, but that is a good thing. The singers defend their approach - in this respect, but also strictly musically - with verve. The sound is bright and the singing fluent, with a perfect legato and an excellent blending of the voices. This disc once again shows that it makes much sense to perform masses from the renaissance period as part of a liturgical framework. This is in every respect a very worthwhile and captivating release.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Cappella Pratensis
Schola Antiqua of Chicago


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