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Alexander AGRICOLA (c1456 - 1506): "Missa In myne zyn - Chansons/Motets"

Capilla Flamenca
Dir: Dirk Snellings

rec: May & June 2010, Heverlee, Abdij van 't Park
Ricercar - RIC 306 (© 2010) (59'50")

Alexander AGRICOLA: Comme femme desconfortée II a 3 (after Gilles Binchois); D'ung aultre amer III a 3 (after Johannes Ockeghem); In minen sin a 3; Missa In myne zin a 4; Pater meus agricola est a 3; Regina coeli a 4; Tout a par moy II a 3 (after Walter Frye); anon: Bien soiez venu/Alleluia; In mynen zin; Sy j'aime mon amy (attr Agricola);

Marnix De Cat, Rob Cuppens [Agnus Dei of mass], alto; Tore Denys, tenor; Lieven Termont, baritone; Dirk Snellings, bass; Liam Fennelly, Thomas Baeté, Piet Stryckers, viola da gamba

Of the many composers who are representatives of the Franco-Flemish school Alexander Agricola is one of the most remarkable and untypical. He seems to have been a rather restless character, and it is tempting to assume this is reflected in his music. Little is known about his early years, and we don't know where and from whom he received his first musical education. He could well have started his career as a singer in a parish church in his birthplace, Ghent.

Agricola's first appointment seems to have been in Cambrai Cathedral. At several moments of his life his whereabouts are unknown. He has been at the French court which he left without permission, he has been in Mantua and Florence, returned to the French court, and in 1500 he entered the service of Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. He travelled twice to Spain, and during the second visit he died of a fever in Valladolid. His oeuvre is not that large, but comprises music in almost any genre of his time: masses and mass movements, motets, Magnificats, hymns and lamentations, chansons and - probably most remarkable - a considerable number of instrumental pieces. Most of the latter are arrangements of single parts from pieces by other composers, like Binchois, Hayne, Ockeghem and Frye. Three of these are included in this recording.

In his liner-notes Fabrice Fitch writes: "Agricola seems to take great pleasure in confounding expectations: melodic ideas are tossed about exuberantly, voices not only follow their own course (a cliché of polyphony) but actually pull the music in different directions at once, and the singers are frequently called on to display extraordinary athleticism." He believes it wasn't just a matter of 'showing off', but rather an expression of his humour directed at his fellow-singers who would be able to "appreciate the originality of his invention". One could characterise Agricola's music as "improvisatory", but "the more closely one examines the details of his counterpoint, the more one has the impression that its more fantastic elements may have been rather carefully organized, or at any rate closely considered". Listening to the mass I was tempted to look at the music as a kind of patchwork, something I have regularly observed in the oeuve of the German baroque composer Christoph Graupner. In his music one never knows what to expect, and that is also the case in some of the sections of Agricola's Missa In myne zyn.

This mass is also notable for using a chanson on a Dutch text as cantus firmus which is quite rare. The disc begins with this chanson, sung first with one voice - I assume by the director of the ensemble Dirk Snellings; in the second stanza he is accompanied by the three viols. The tune is hardly recognizable in the mass, which is not unusual. If it turns up, it remains fragmentary, and that fits well into the texture of this mass. It is divided into a unusual large number of sub-sections, which are often contrasting in scoring and rhythm. The most remarkable section is the Agnus Dei III, where the bass sings in a completely different rhythm from the other three voices.

The booklet is a bit short on information in regard to some of the pieces in the programme. The second item is Sy j'aime mon amy, but it isn't quite clear that this is an anonymous piece which is attributed to Agricola. The identity of the other two pieces which are presented as anonymous is also not made clear. Fabrice Fitch doesn't even mention these three pieces. Also not quite clear is that the three instrumental pieces are arrangements by Agricola. A remarkable piece is Pater meus agricola est, again for instruments. The title is a quotation from the Bible. In John 15,1 Jesus says: "(I am the true vine and) my Father is the farmer". Of course Agricola also refers to his name, and one may consider this another token of his humour.

The Capilla Flamenca is one of the best ensembles in this kind of repertoire, and it comprises four really fine voices which blend perfectly. One could probably argue that they are treated too much on an individual basis here. Because of that the independence of the parts can be clearly heard, which is instructive. But musically I would have liked a bit more ensemble, although my experiece in this respect could well depend on the fact that I have listened to this disc through headphones. The singing is brilliant, though, and the quality of Agricola's music is impressively demonstrated. The playing of the three viols is excellent. The mass begins with the Gloria; it is likely Agricola did compose the Kyrie, but this has not been preserved. In this recording the sections of the mass are interspersed by the three instrumental arrangements. Whether one does appreciate this or not is a matter of taste. I would have liked the mass to be sung without any interruption.

The liner-notes by Fabrice Fitch are in English and have been translated in French, German and Dutch. The lyrics are also given with translations.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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