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CD reviews

Johannes OCKEGHEM (c1410 - 1497): Masses

[I] Missa L'homme armé
Ensemble Nusmido
rec: Sept 22 - 25, 2014, Halle, Johanneskirche
Rondeau - ROP6106 (© 2014) (69'39")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alexander AGRICOLA (1446-1506): Cecus non iudicat de coloribus a 3; Antoine BUSNOYS (c1433-1492): In hydraulis a 4; ?Robert MORTON (c1430-c1479) / ?Guillaume DUFAY (c1397-1474): Il sera par vous - L'homme armé a 3 / a 4; Johannes OCKEGHEM: Missa L'homme armé a 4; Ut heremita solus a 4

Ivo Ignaz Berg, voice, recorder, bells; Martin Ehrhardt, voice, recorder, portative organ; Milo Machover, voice, renaissance flute; Marijke Meerwijk, voice, bells
with: Miyoko Ito, fiddle

[II] "Masses"
Beauty Farm
rec: July 2015 & May 2016, Kartause Mauerbach (A)
fra bernardo - FB 1701743 (© 2017) (62'13")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Missa 5. toni a 3; Missa L'homme armé a 4

Bart Uvyn, alto; Adriaan de Koster, Hannes Wagner, tenor; Christoph Drescher, Martin Vögerl, baritone; Joachim Höchbauer, bass

Scores Ockeghem

Johannes Ockeghem is one of the most famous composers of the renaissance and belongs among 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 in the service of Charles, Duke of Bourbon, and later 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 never worked in Italy.

The two discs under review here include two masses; the Missa L'homme armé is performed by both ensembles, and is one of Ockeghem's most famous works. That is partly due to his choice of the chanson L'homme armé as the cantus firmus of this four-part mass. This is one of the best-known songs of the renaissance period and was used more than 40 times as the starting point of a mass. However, the origin and meaning of the chanson is still surrounded by mystery.

The text, in translation, is as follows: "The armed man should be feared. Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared." Some have suggested the 'armed man' represents the archangel Michael. The chanson has also been associated with a crusade against the Turks. The song appeared first at the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Milo Machover, in the booklet to the Rondeau disc, mentions that the song has 31 beats, exactly the number of members of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which had been founded in 1430 and one of whose aims was the defense of the Christian faith.

Composers could treat the cantus firmus in many different ways. Ockeghem quotes it a number of times in the tenor part in all the sections of the mass. One has to pay atention to that to recognize it. It is easier in the recording of Beauty Farm than in the performance of the Ensemble Nusmido. That is not a shortcoming of the latter, but the outcome of the approach to renaissance polyphony the ensemble has chosen. The singers have studied with Rebecca Stewart, who is known as the founder of the Cappella Pratensis, which for many years followed the same principles, but have taken a somewhat different path since they split up with Ms Stewart.

The booklet points out the principles of the ensemble's approach. "Our work as an ensemble has been based from the begin­ning on several historically established principles for music­ making: we assemble around a large choirbook placed on a high­standing lectern. We sing from the original notation, which by transmitting the music in separate parts brings out the horizontal, text­oriented character of the music. The interpretation of medieval notation has been an essential source of inspiration for us: it transmits a wealth of informa­tion about phrasing that modern notation rarely offers; the separate parts help us escape the vertical logic of scores; by avoiding bar lines, the melody flows more freely; liga­tures link together as many notes as possible into musical/temporal vectors. We also believe that a specific singing technique is required for this music, one that relies less on a dynamic and affect­oriented characterisation and more on a fusion of the voices through the blending of overtones."

"All of this offers the potential for a form of sacred polyphony in which the individual voices are neither independent nor autonomous, but point instead, through sensitive interrela­tion and interaction, to a common entity, whose intangi­ble and unfathomable character appears to be part of the compositional and artistic/religious intention." The audible effect is that the transparency of the musical fabric is far less important than in the more common ways of performing vocal polyphony of the renaissance. I am not in the position to assess which approach is closer to the performance practice of the time. The ensemble is certainly right in several aspects, such as the use of a single choirbook and the close connection between the singers standing around it. I should also add that Rebecca Stewart emphasises that the style of singing was not uniform across Europe, and that Latin was pronounced in different ways, which in itself influences the style of singing and the sound the singers produce.

As far as the identification of the cantus firmus is concerned, it seems questionable whether that was a matter of concern for composers at the time. These days renaissance polyphony is performed as part of public concerts, but originally it was intended for liturgical use. There was no such thing as an audience, but rather a community of believers, who participated in the liturgy. It seems likely that the material was mainly used by the composer to give structure to a mass. Moreover, the performers of a mass like Ockeghem's Missa L'homme armé certainly will have recognized the song.

The performance by Beauty Farm is very different. It is more straightforward, the tempi are faster, the sound is less intimate and more intended to communicate the music to an audience. The song has unmistakably some fanfare-like traits, which come better off in Beauty Farm's performance than in the approach of the Ensemble Nusmido. I have enjoyed both performances, and we have two strongly alternative readings here, which are both defended with much conviction.

The ensembles have taken different decisions in regard to the construction of their programmes. Beauty Farm performs the Missa L'homme armé out of any liturgical context. That leaves space for another mass, the Missa 5. toni for three voices. Whereas the former mass dates from around 1455, the latter is of an earlier date. It is not a parody mass, but Ockeghem still uses a single motif as the cement to keep the work together. It presents itself in the tenor at the beginning of each section.

The Ensemble Nusmido suggests a more liturgical setting, but in this case the sections of the mass are not separated by liturgical chants, but instrumental works or vocal compositions which are performed instrumentally. Busnoys' In hydraulis is an example of the latter, and so is Ockeghem's own Ut heremita solus, which was probably written as a reply on Busnoys' piece. Agricola's Cecus non iudicat de coloribus is one of the composer's pieces which have been preserved without a text and were probably specifically intended for instrumental performance. In the case of Busnoys and Ockeghem I prefer a vocal performance, but these instrumental versions are interesting alternatives to vocal interpretations. The playing by the singers of the ensemble is excellent.

These two Ockeghem discs can both be welcomed as substiantial additions to the Ockeghem discography, whose music does not appear on disc that often. The fact that they are so different in regard to interpretation only adds to their value.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Beauty Farm
Ensemble Nusmido

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