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Ludwig SENFL (c1486 - 1542/43): Missa Paschalis, Motets and Songs

Christopher Watson, tenora; Robert Macdonald, bassb; Andrew Lawrence King, harpc
The Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridged; QuintEssentiale
Dir: David Skinner

rec: May 25 - 26, 2008, Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College (chapel)abc; July 9 - 11, 2008, Regensburg, St Emmeram (church)de
Obsidian - CD704 (© 2009) (66'51")

Costanzo FESTA (c1485/90-1545), arr Ludwig Senfl?: Quis dabit oculisde; Ludwig SENFL: Ach Elslein, liebes Elselein meinc; Ave Mariade; Carmen in Rec; Carmen in Lac; Fortuna ad voces musicalesac; Ich stuend an einem Morgenac; Im Maienac; Missa Paschalisde; So ich sie dann freundlich grüeßbe; So man lang machtbe; Was wird es doch des Wunders nochc; Wohl auf, wir wöllen's weckenbe

[Quintessential] Richard Thomas, Samuel Goble, cornett; Philip Dale, Adam Woolf, Andrew Harwood-White, sackbut; Ann Allen, shawm

It is very useful to take a look into the articles on various composers in a music encyclopedia like New Grove. The worklist which is added at the end of the article reveals that Ludwig Senfl has left a large corpus of sacred and secular music. If one then searches at the internet for recordings of his music, one is astonished how little of his oeuvre has been recorded. Although his name is certainly not unknown to interpreters and lovers of renaissance music, his music is almost completely ignored. Only a handful of his sacred works are available on disc. His secular songs have fared a little better, but what has been recorded is only a small proportion of what he has written.

Ludwig Senfl is one of the relatively few composers before modern times who is from Switzerland. He was probably born in Basle, but lived for a while in Zurich. His career in music started when he became a choirboy in the court chapel of Maximilian I in Augsburg. He moved with the chapel to Vienna in 1496, where Heinrich Isaac was court composer from 1497 onwards. Senfl later claimed to have been Isaac's pupil; he was part of the chapel when it traveled to Augsburg for the Reichstag in 1507. In 1517 he succeeded Isaac as court composer. When Maximilian died in 1519 the largest part of his chapel was disbanded by his successor, Charles V, and Senfl had to look for another job. In 1523 he entered the service of Duke Wilhelm in Bavaria, where he stayed the rest of his life.

Senfl lived in a time of religious upheaval, and there is written evidence that he stood in contact with the reformer Martin Luther and Duke Albrecht of Prussia who had adopted the Lutheran Reformation. But how far Senfl was leaning towards Luther's ideas remains unclear. Senfl had taken minor orders in Vienna, but in Munich he gave up his clerical status in 1529 and married that same year. Whether that has anything to do with his Reformation sympathies is impossible to decide. At least he was never submitted to any examination by the ecclesiastical authorities.

This disc offers specimen from the various genres which are represented in Senfl's oeuvre. It contains only six masses; another mass is attributed to either Senfl or his pupil Ludwig Daser. David Skinner has chosen the Missa Paschalis which shows little stylistic unity. It could well be that the Kyrie and the Gloria on the one hand and the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei on the other hand are from various masses by Senfl which have been lost. In this recording both pairs of sections are connected, with various other pieces separating Gloria and Sanctus. This mass has no Credo.

The two motets are both connected to other composers. Ave Maria is a 6-part reworking of the famous motet by Josquin Desprez. The original is clearly audible in this setting, but Senfl's setting is much longer as he uses the complete text, in contrast to Josquin. Quis dabit oculis was originally written by Costanzo Festa at the death of Anne of Brittany, queen of France. A slight adaptation was performed at the funeral of Maximilian I in 1519, "probably by Senfl himself", David Skinner writes in his programme notes. But this adaptation is also attributed to Ludwig Daser.

If a disc is devoted to a composer whose oeuvre is largely neglected it is disappointing if it includes pieces of doubtful authenticity like this one. It is not the only aspect of this release which needs to be criticised. That is also the case with the performance. The sacred pieces are performed with instruments, either playing colla voce or replacing the voices. This was a common practice in the 16th century, and certainly at the court in Bavaria. But the performance practice on this disc is very inconsistent. Take the Kyrie from the Missa Paschalis. It is an alternatim composition: Kyrie I, III, Christe II and Kyrie IV and VI are in plainchant, whereas Kyrie II, Christe I and III and Kyrie V are sung in Senfl's polyphony. In both Kyrie's the full choir is singing, with the wind of QuintEssential doubling the voices. But in Christe I and III only the tenors from the choir are singing, whereas the other parts are played by the wind. Likewise the Gloria is an amalgam of scorings. Most sections are sung by the full choir, with the wind playing colla voce. In 'Domine Deus' the same practice is applied as in the Christe I and III. In 'Tu solus altissimus' the same happens, but this time with the altos singing. In 'Qui sedes' all of a sudden we hear one tenor as a soloist with the wind. This inconsistency makes this performance highly unsatisfying and historically very questionable.

Moreover, with 25 singers the Choir of Sidney Sussex College is far too large for this repertoire. It leads to a dense sound which makes the delivery rather problematic. In fact, most of the time one can hardly understand a word they are singing. And to be honest, I find the singing quite dull. It also needs to be noticed that the Italian pronunciation is used in the Latin texts, which is historically more than questionable.

In addition to the sacred music we hear some instrumental pieces and secular songs. Of the latter Senfl has written a large number most of which are in four parts. There is no objection against a performance with a solo voice and instruments, but the result isn't always convincing. The songs which are performed with tenor and harp come off best: Christopher Watson is singing well, and Andrew Lawrence King's performances on the harp are delightful. But the combination of the bass Robert Macdonald - who has a nice voice and sings rather well - and the wind is less successful, also because the balance is less than ideal. It is quite odd that in So man lang macht after the first syllable of the last word the bass has to be silent before singing the last syllable, whereas the instruments continue playing. It would probably have been better to sing the tenor part with the lowest part being performed instrumentally. Some songs are performed with instruments only, and that is certainly a legitimate option. What kind of instruments are used is up to the performers. The various Carmina of which we hear two here are mostly performed with wind instruments, but a harp is a nice alternative.

Considering the lack of recordings of Senfl's music it is very unfortunate that a disc which should be welcomed, can hardly be recommended because of questionable decisions in regard to interpretation and musically unsatisfying performances. The booklet, with its white letters at a back background, is difficult to read.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

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