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Giaches DE WERT (1535 - 1596): "Vox in Rama - Il secondo libro de motetti"

Collegium Regale
Dir: Stephen Cleobury

rec: June 25 - 26 & July 2, 2007, Swaffham Prior (Norfolk, UK), St Cyriac's Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD131 ( 2008) (71'16")

Amen, amen dico vobis; Angelus Domini astitit; Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas; Domine, tu es qui fecisti; Gaudete in Domino; Hoc enim sentite in vobis; Hoc es praeceptum meum; Hora est iam nos; Jerusalem, Jerusalem; O crux ave spes unica; Obsecro vos fratres; Providebam Dominum; Vox in Rama

(Source: Il secondo libro de motetti, 1581)

Giaches de Wert is one of the last representatives of the so-called Franco-Flemish school of polyphony which dominated the music scene in Europe for almost two centuries. It is not precisely known where Wert was born, probably in Ghent in the Southern Netherlands (presently Belgium). As a boy he was taken to Italy to sing in the household of Maria di Cardona, Marchese of Padulla. This was a widespread practice in those days. He developed strong ties to the county of Novellara, which was ruled by a branch of the Gonzaga family. It is probably thanks to these ties that he was able to work as maestro di capella at the court of the governor of Milan. In 1565 he became maestro di capella at the court of Mantua.

Wert has become mainly known as composer of madrigals; more than 10 books were published during his lifetime. In this capacity he had a strong and lasting influence on next generations of composers, like Claudio Monteverdi, who worked in Mantua from 1589 to 1596. In comparison his sacred output is limited. This includes three books of motets, for five and six voices respectively. The second book for five voices which is recorded here, was published in 1581.

These motets bear the traces of Wert's skills as a composer of madrigals. More than other composers he translated the text into music. In this respect one could compare him with his contemporary Orlandus Lassus. Several motets of the second book reflect this practice. Benedicta sit sancta Trinitas contains much homophony, which reflects that part of the text which stresses the "undivided unity" of the Holy Trinity. Homophony is also used to single out crucial elements in the text, like the passage in St Paul's letter to the Philippians, set to music in Hoc enim sentite in vobis where the apostle states that Jesus "humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross".

Ascending and descending figures are used to illustrate the text. The former are used in Hora est iam nos: "Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep". As one would expect they are also used to express joy, as in Gaudete in Domino: "Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say, rejoice". Descending figures express the passage in Luke 13 vs34-35 where Jesus is quoted saying: "Behold your house shall be left to you desolate" (Jerusalem, Jerusalem).

Wert regularly makes use of lively rhythms to express joy, like at the end of Providebam Dominum: "thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance". In Amen, amen dico vobis they are applied on the word "gaudebit" (shall rejoice) and "propter gaudium" (because of joy) at the end of the motet. In this motet a strong contrast in rhythm is used to express the change of mood in "your sorrow shall be turned into joy". The disc is called Vox in Rama, which is not suprising as it is one of Wert's most famous motets and also one of his most expressive. It is the setting of the end of the pericope in the gospel according to St Matthew about the Massacre of the Innocents: "A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not." The dark mood of this text is expressed by chromaticism and dissonances as one doesn't find them in any of the other motets on this disc.

The American musicologist Carol MacClintock stated that Wert's motets "are graphic and narrative, often jubilant, magnificent in their elaborate counterpoint which at times becomes luxurious in their tremendous sonority. This is music for a church which pretended to splendor and pomp (...)". These aspects are well brought to the fore in the motets on this disc. She then mentions the fact that "there were instrumental canzonas before and during the Mass, and some portions of the service were sung with instrumental accompaniment. Many of these motets were intended for such a purpose". She is referring here to the performance practice in the basilica which was built between 1562 and 1565 and was dedicated to the patron saint of Mantua, Santa Barbara.

This practice is not paid tribute to on this disc: all motets are performed with voices only. In a way that is a shame; the use of instruments in some motets, in particular the more jubilant pieces, had strenghthened their splendour which reflects the brilliance of both the basilica's music practice and the court of the Gonzagas. But that is the only note of criticism. The singing is excellent and does full justice to the expressive character of these motets. Both the rich polyphonic structure as the exquisite expression of single words or phrases in the texts are well realised here. The ensemble produces a very beautiful sound, and the style of singing as well as the recording technique have resulted in a nice transparent sound. The booklet contains informative programme notes and all lyrics with an English translation.

This is the first recording of the whole second book of motets and therefore an important addition to the catalogue, considering the quality of Wert's music. As the performances are first-rate there is every reason to strongly recommend this recording to anyone interested in the polyphony of the renaissance.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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