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CD reviews

Adrian WILLAERT (c1490 - 1562): "Musica Nova - The Motets"

Singer Pur

rec: May, June & July 2011, Bezirksklinikum Regensburg, St. Vitus
Oehms - OC 835 (3 CDs) (© 2012) (3.45'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Alma redemptoris mater a 6; Aspice Domine a 6; Audite insulae a 6; Avertatur obsecro a 6; Beati pauperes spiritu a 5; Benedicta es coelorum Regina a 7; Confitebor tibi Domine a 4; Dilexi, quoniam exaudiet a 4; Domine, quid multiplicati sunt a 4; Haec est domus Domini a 6; Huc me sidereo a 6; Inviolata, integra, et casta a 7; Miserere nostri Deus omnium a 5; Mittit ad virginem a 6; O admirabile commercium a 5; Omnia quae fecisti a 5; Pater, peccavi a 6; Peccata mea a 6; Praeter rerum seriem a 7; Recordare Domine a 4; Salve Sancta parens a 6; Sub tuum praesidium confugimus a 5; Sustinuimus pacem a 5; Te Deum Patrem ingenitum a 7; Veni Sancte Spiritus a 6; Verbum supernum prodiens a 7; Victimae paschali laudes a 6

Source: Musica Nova, 1559

Claudia Reinhard, soprano; Klaus Wenk, Markus Zapp, Manuel Warwitz, tenor; Reiner Schneider-Waterberg, baritone; Marcus Schmidl, bass; with: David Erler, alto; Andreas Hirtreiter, Gerhard Hölzle, tenor; Michael Mantaj, bass

In 1559 a remarkable collection of compositions by Adrian Willaert was published, under the title Musica Nova. This title suggests that it comprised new compositions, but that is not the case. They all date from the 1540s, but had never been published before. A contemporary musician stated that they unfortunately had been "hidden and buried" for many years. This is remarkable considering the status of Willaert who was one of the most celebrated composers of his time. It was not without reason that he was maestro di cappella of St Mark's in Venice from 1527 until his death.

Also remarkable is the fact that the collection included motets and madrigals. This was quite unusual: collections of motets were purchased by court and cathedral chapels to be sung during liturgy, but they had no use for madrigals. However, the music in Musica Nova was not written for the church. It is likely that in the years before publication the motets and madrigals were performed in the circle of Florentine fuorisciti who had been exiled from their native city because of their resistance to the rule of the Medici family. One of them was Neri Capponi, at whose musical soirées Willaert was a regular guest. Another participant was a Florentine singer, Polissena Pecorina; she was the first owner of the collection. In 1554 she sold the scores to the Ferrarese nobleman Alfonso d'Este. She was aware of the value of the material as she asked and received a high price. The printer was one of Venice's most famous, Antoine Gardane, who performed his job with utmost care. The format and layout of the partbooks are exceptional and the print contains a portrait of the composer, the only authentic portrait which has come down to us. Moreover, the connection between the notes and the syllables is very precise, which leaves no doubt about which note should be sung on which syllable.

In 2009 the German ensemble Singer Pur started the project of recording the whole collection as a remembrance of the first publication 450 years ago. The first part was a set of two discs which included the 25 madrigals, all but one on texts from the Canzonieri by Petrarca. Three years later the second part was released, comprising the 27 motets. Like the madrigals they are scored for four to seven voices. The are on biblical and liturgical texts; there are no motets devoted to single saints, except for the Virgin Mary. The lyrics in the booklet include references to the time of the ecclesiastical year for which they were conceived, for instance Dominica Resurrectionis (Easter). I assume that these references are part of the original edition. Most motets are in two parts, some in three. O admirabile commercium is unique in that it comprises seven parts, which explains its exceptional length (more than 27 minutes in this performance).

Willaert's motets are supreme examples of the stile antico and were widely admired. There are no madrigalisms in the motets from Musica Nova, although here and there one can detect some modest examples of text illustration. Aspice Domine is on a text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and that could explain its dark mood: it is performed here with tenors, baritones and basses. On the other hand, many motets are on texts about penitence and sin and have a more 'conventional' scoring. Moreover, the pitch is mostly left to the performers.

Singer Pur consists of singers who are former members of the Regensburger Domspatzen. The five men were joined by a soprano and they won an important prize in 1994. Since then they have made an impressive career with repertoire which goes from the renaissance to avant-garde and jazz. It is remarkable that the ensemble doesn't include an alto. That is the reason the ensemble is extended by guest singers in projects like this. Even so, in some cases I miss the alto voice. I feel that there is sometimes a kind of gap between the soprano and the male singers. That is partly due to the fact that the highest tenors seem a little overstretched now and then and are lacking in presence. In this recording the motets in which the alto David Erler is involved generally come off best. Actually, the top voice could have been sung by him as well as its tessitura is well within his grasp, at least in the pitch chosen here.

The recording is good, but the miking is a bit too close for comfort. It allows the listener to follow the individual lines, but a little more distance would have resulted in a better ensemble effect. The last issue is the pronunciation of Latin. In my reviews I often complain about the Italian pronunciation of Latin in compositions by German composers. Here the reverse is the case: the singers pronunciate Latin following common practice in Germany, and that is quite odd.

These points of criticism shouldn't hold anyone back from purchasing this set and the previous volume with the madrigals. Overall these performances are very good. This project is of major importance and a worthy tribute to one of the greatest composers of the 16th century. The booklet includes all lyrics with a German and an English translation. It is a shame that the original texts and the translations have not been printed side by side rather than one below the other. That is quite inconvenient if you want to follow the original text and read the translation at the same time. The liner-notes are informative and includes everything one would like to know.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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