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Antoine BRUMEL (c1460 - 1512/13): "From Darkness Into Light - The complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday"

Musica Secreta
Dir: Deborah Roberts, Laurie Stras

rec: May 6 - 8, 2019, Southampton, St Michael the Archangel
Obsidian - CD719 (© 2019) (73'05")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Antoine BRUMEL: Lamentationes Hieremiae Prophetae, in feria sexta Parasceve
anon: Ave maris stella; Jesus autem cum ieiunasset; Salve Regina; Verbum caro factum est a 4; Loyset COMPÈRE (c1445-1518): Paranymphus salutat virginem; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450/55-1521): Recordare virgo mater; Antonius MORUS (fl 1559/60): Sancta Maria succurre miseris

Victoria Couper, Sally Dunkley, Yvonne Eddy, Hannah Ely, Katharine Hawnt, Kim Porter, Deborah Roberts, Laurie Stras, Caroline Trevor, voice; Alison Kinder, viola da gamba; Claire Williams, organ

Many composers of the renaissance were quite productive. Take a look at the work-list of Orlandus Lassus in New Grove, and you see what I mean. He was probably the exception, but contemporaries of his and many composers of earlier generations must have written much more than has come down to us. Lassus had the good luck that he was able to publish a large part of his oeuvre. Previous composers were not so lucky, also as the possibility to print music came only after 1500, thanks to Ottavio Petrucci.

From that perspective it is not surprising that so much music has been lost or has come down to us in fragmentary form. The present disc includes Lamentation of Jeremiah by Antoine Brumel, of which previously only a small part was known. Two fragments were known from a manuscript in Florence. They also appear in another Florence manuscript, but there they come without the name of a composer. In her liner-notes to the present recording, Laurie Stras describes how she came to have a better look at the manuscript. The whole collection was copied by Antonius Morus, who also compiled a collection of music for a Florentine nunnery, which is now preserved in Brussels. The contents of the two collections are very similar: music for equal voices, mostly anonymous, and written some decades before. Therefore Stras wondered whether the Florentine collection may also have been intended for nuns, and decided to do some research. The pieces by Brumel were identified in the 1960s, but researcher at the time did not realise that the Lamentations were much longer than what was known at the time. In fact, the manuscript includes a complete set of Lamentations - the set that can be heard on this disc, more than 40 minutes of music, which is almost four times what was available for performance previously and has been recorded by, among others, The Tallis Scholars.

Brumel's Lamentations comprise nineteen verses (ch 2, vs8-15 and ch 3, vs1-11). They do correspond to the Good Friday lessons in a Franciscan breviary published in Venice in 1478. Lessons usually have three refrains: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Deum Dominum tuum". The odd thing is that Brumel's Lamentations have five refrains, and they are placed in a liturgically inappropriate way. Stras comes up with an original explanation. The refrains "divide the verses, a prescient allegory of the Good Friday story, into a narrative that corresponds closely to the arc of Senecan tragedy: Exposition, Beginning of Action, Complication of Action, Reversal of Fortune, Catastrophe. Each of the 'lessons' (as they would be in the liturgy) thus becomes an act in a Passion drama, narrated - as Senecan tragedies were once thought to have been - by a single 'voice'." She then specifies how she sees the connection between these Lamentations and tragedy. Obviously, it will be hard to prove that she is right here. However, she adds some circumstantial evidence which suggests that her explanation has to be taken seriously. "Seneca's tragedies had been well known in Florence for centuries, particularly through the education of its youth. Reading the setting in this way makes sense if the manuscript originated in a confraternity, the lay brotherhoods that formed the basis of so much of Florence's cultural, political, and religious life. Some indications in P.M.'s manuscript suggest that it may have belonged to the flagellant confraternity, the Buca di San Paolo."

In addition to the Lamentations by Brumel, we get here pieces from the other collection copied by Antonius Morus. It includes music for the entire ecclesiastical year, mostly by anonymous composers. Only four items bear the name of the composer, and five other pieces can be identified because they also appear in other sources. For this programme the performers have selected eight pieces, five of them anonymous. Both Ave Maria and Salve Regina are alternatim compositions.

There is one important aspect of this recording that has to be discussed. Laurie Stras, in her liner-notes, mentions that the two collections which are the sources of this recording, are very similar in that the pieces are mostly for equal voices. This can be explained by the fact that they were intended for performance in a women's convent. However, in her notes on the performance, she writes that some of the works on this disc, among them Brumel's Lamentations, were transposed into ranges appropriate for female voices. Do we have to conclude from this that the collections also include pieces in the conventional scoring? Whatever is the case, this practice leads to two conclusions. First, independent of the quality of the performances by Musica Secreta, there is certainly room for another recording in the 'conventional' line-up with male voices. Second, these performances shed light on an important liturgical practice which does not receive that much attention: the singing in women's convents. This undoubtedly deserves more research, also with regerd to performance practice. In this recording, the low voices are either transposed upwards or are played in their normal range on viola da gamba and organ. It is to be hoped that such research will result in more recordings of the kind we have here.

This disc is an excellent case for such recordings as well as the performance practice it documents. Musica Secreta is an ensemble of nine voices which blend perfectly. They have found the right approach to this repertoire and perform it in an engaging manner. The liturgical character is well observed, also with regard to the acoustical environment. This is a disc nobody interested in renaissance polyphony should miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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