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Johannes OCKEGHEM (c1420 - 1497): "Johannes Ockeghem 2"

The Sound and the Fury

rec: July 11, 2007 (live), Kartause Mauerbach (Kirche)
ORF - CD 3130 (© 2012) (63'24")
Liner-notes: E/D; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

Missa Ecce ancilla Domini a 4; Missa My my a 4

David Erler, alto; John Potter, tenor; Colin Mason, Richard Wistreich, bass

Johannes OCKEGHEM (c1420 - 1497), Pierre DE LA RUE (c1452 - 1518): "Requiem"

Cappella Pratensis

rec: June 9 - 12, 2011, Vieusart, Église Saint-Pierre et Martin
Challenge Classics - CC72541 (© 2012) (57'15")
Liner notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johannes OCKEGHEM: Missa pro defunctis a 4; Pierre DE LA RUE: Missa pro defunctis a 5

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

Scores Ockeghem, Score De la Rue

Johannes Ockeghem is one of the most famous composers of the renaissance and belongs to the most prominent representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. Despite his high reputation during his lifetime we know very little about him. Even the exact year of his birth is still not established. He was at the service of Charles, Duke of Bourbon, and later he became a member of the French royal chapel. His fame is documented by the various laments in both text and music which were written on his death in 1497. As one of the very few composers from the Franco-Flemish school he has never worked in Italy, and this has consequences for the performance practice.

The ensemble The Sound and the Fury is in the process of recording a series of highlights from the classical polyphony. So far they have produced three discs with music by Gombert, the first in series devoted to De la Rue and Obrecht respectively, and also recorded music by the lesser-known masters Faugues and Caron. This disc is the second with music by Johannes Ockeghem. It includes two four-part masses. The Missa Ecce ancilla Domini is based on the concluding segment and ensuing Alleluia of the antiphon Missus est angelus Gabriel a Deo: "Ecce ancilla Domini" - Behold the handmaid of the Lord, do unto me according to Thy word. The plainchant melody is incorporated in Kyrie, Gloria and Credo. The liner notes by Jaap van Benthem include an interesting observation: "The bassus of the opening Kyrie may betray to what extent the composer avowed himself a 'servant of the Lord': its two phrases consist of 14 and 9 notes, numbers which represented the letters O and J in the medieval Latin alphabet. Tradition has it that Ockeghem himself possessed a sonorous bass voice".

The Missa My my could date from the mid-1470s and is based on material from Ockeghem's own 3-part chanson Presque transi ung peu mains qu'estre mort. He uses material from the first half in some parts of the mass, and takes material from the second half in others. According to Jaap van Benthem some accidentals were removed from this mass in the sources from the early 16th century; they have been restored in this performance.

I have been quite critical in my earlier reviews of The Sound and the Fury, and I haven't found any reason to change my view. One of my objections is the close miking which means that every voice can be heard individually, but at the cost of the ensemble. Only the basses blend really well. As far as I can tell the weak spot in these performances is the tenor John Potter. Whereas in particular David Erler produces beautiful legato lines - and that is what this kind of music requires - Potter fails to do so, and too often chops his lines. There are also strange dynamic shades in his singing where they are not appropriate. Moreover, as I have already mentioned Ockeghem has never been in Italy; so what could be the reason to use the Italian pronunciation of Latin?

The quality and the relative obscurity of these masses makes it all the more disappointing that the performances are not really satisfying.

The recording of the Cappella Pratensis is of a different order. It brings two of the earliest Requiems in music history. The church emphasized that music about passion and death should be sober, and all kinds of ornamentation should be avoided. For a long time Requiem masses were only performed in plainchant. The Missa pro defunctis by Johannes Ockeghem is the first polyphonic setting in history which has survived. There is evidence that Guillaume Dufay was the first to compose a polyphonic Requiem, but that work has been lost. There is some speculation, though, that at least some elements of his setting may have been incorporated in Ockeghem's Requiem. Some even suggest that an unknown editor may have put together this work from various sources, including Dufay's setting. The reason is that Ockeghem's Requiem contains considerable stylistic differences. There is too little firm evidence to decide what exactly Ockeghem has written down, and whether it has remained incomplete or just has been transmitted in incomplete form.

Pierre de la Rue is of a later generation, but his Missa pro defunctis may have been written not too long after Ockeghem's. Like the latter's De la Rue's setting is entirely based on plainchant, but shows a stronger stylistic coherence. One problem performers are facing is the differences in pitch of the various parts of De la Rue's Requiem. In another recent recording ("Fragile - A Requiem for Male Voices"; Die Singphoniker, Oehms, 2010) the interpreters confessed that it caused them great trouble to solve it. Here Margaret Bent writes in the liner-notes that the discrepancies of register can be solved by transpositions which is the approach taken for this recording.

It was only the Council of Trent which set down the text of the Requiem. Previously every setting could include different texts. That is also the case here. Ockeghem's Requiem includes Introitus, Kyrie, Graduale (Si ambulem), Tractus (Sicut cervus) and Offertorio (Domine Jesu Christe). De la Rue's setting omits Graduale, but adds Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communio (Lux aeterna). In some recordings of Ockeghem's Requiem the 'missing' parts are performed in plainchant (for instance The Hilliard Ensemble; Virgin Classics). That is not the case here: we only get the parts which Ockeghem has set. The Graduale which is omitted by De la Rue is also not added in a plainchant version. It would be interesting to hear these Requiems in a kind of liturgical context, but I assume too little is known about the liturgical practice of that time to try such an untertaking which would inevitably be highly speculative.

The performances of the Cappella Pratensis are brilliant and in every way convincing. The legato singing is impeccable and so is the blending of the voices. There are some pretty high notes in Ockeghem's Requiem, which are performed with effortless ease by Stratton Bull and Andrew Hallock. The passages in reduced scoring - mostly duets - are coming off impressively as well. In contrast to The Sound and the Fury the Cappella Pratensis is willing to take the region where these works have been written and performed into account, which results in a pronunciation of Latin which is assumed to have been common in Flanders. The acoustical circumstances are ideal, with just the right amount of reverberation. The text isn't always easy to understand, but at this time in history that was not the first consideration of composers or performers.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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