musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (1510/15 - 1556): "Jacob Clement"

Huelgas Ensemble
Dir: Paul Van Nevel

rec: July 11 - 12, 2010, St. Sauvant, Église St. Sylvaint
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697 78069 2 (© 2012) (64'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Adieu mon esperance a 6, chanson; Als ick riep met verlanghen a 3, souterliedeken; Fremuit spiritu Jesus a 6, motet; Hoort myn ghebet o Heere a 3, souterliedeken; Jaquin Jaquet a 4, chanson; Je prends en gré & mourir m'y fault a 4, chanson; Jerusalem surge a 5, motet; Missa A la fontaine du prez a 6 (Gloria); Missa Caro mea a 5 (Sanctus); Missa Gaude lux Donatiane a 5-6 (Kyrie); Missa Spes salutis a 4-6 (Agnus Dei); Plorer gemir et larmoyer my fault a 5, chanson; Qui consolabatur me a 5, motet; Welsalich zyn se hier op aerden a 3, souterliedeken

Els Van Laethem, Axelle Bernage, superius; Sabine Lutzenberger, Witte Maria Weber, superius/altus; Kaspar Kröner, altus; Achim Schulz, Johannes Balbach-Nohl, Tom Phillips, Matthew Vine, tenor; Erik Van Nevel, Tim Scott Whiteley, baritonans; Martin Backhaus, Joel Frederiksen, bassus

Last year I reviewed a disc with the Requiem and several motets by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, performed by The Brabant Ensemble under the direction of Stephen Rice. I quoted the director writing in his liner-notes that Clemens' oeuvre hasn't received the attention it deserves considering its quality which is reflected by the composer's great reputation in his life-time. Even so, he seems to have been a rather controversial figure as his life-style met with sharp criticism. He was described as a drunkard and as leading a "bad life". It is not specified what that means. In the liner-notes to this new recording with a survey of Clemens' oeuvre Paul Van Nevel doesn't give a conclusive answer. He suggests that this could refer to Clemens' leaning towards the Reformation. This suggestion is not new; in fact, it has been discussed for a long time, but we still seem not to have the answer.

The addition of non Papa to his name has led to much speculation. The suggestion that he wanted to prevent any confusion with Pope Clemens VII is not plausible as Clemens died in 1534, before any of Clemens non Papa's works appeared in print. Van Nevel suggests that Clemens wanted to show that he was no papist. Another argument in favour of Clemens' sympathy for the Reformation is his writing of a number of Souterliedekens, litterally meaning "little psalm songs". These were the first polyphonic settings of the 150 Psalms in Dutch versifications. Three of these have been included in the programme. Unfortunately Van Nevel doesn't mention them in his liner-notes. The melodies were not original: Clemens used existing melodies for his polyphonic settings.

There are also arguments against Clemens' leaning towards the Reformation. In 1569 the Duke of Alva, representing the Spanish King Philip II in the Netherlands, censured all books which were considered heretical. But Clemens' Souterliedekens were not banned. Moreover, for a number of years Clemens was at the service of Duke Philippe de Croy, a staunch Catholic and one of Emperor Charles V's greatest generals. Whether these arguments are strong enough to refute the suggestions of Clemens' sympathy for the Reformation is hard to tell. So far there seems to be no conclusive evidence in one or the other direction.
Adieu mon esperance is an example of a composition which includes moments with remarkable harmony which eloquently express the melancholic nature of the text. Another melancholic piece is Plorer gemir et larmoyer my fault: "The rigour of my sorry fortune bids me weep and wail and sob".

There are also some motets in which the text is translated into music, such as Jerusalem surge (Arise, Jerusalem, and stand on high) and even moreFremuit spiritu Jesu, about the death and resurrection of Lazarus. Here in particular the emotions of Jesus about the death of his friend are strongly depicted. This is emphasized by the performance: Paul Van Nevel is not afraid of creating drastic dynamic contrasts in order to give way to the emotions in the text. Qui consolabatur me is another beautiful motet in which the sadness of the text is vividly expressed: "He who used to console me has abandoned me. That which I desire, I seek but find not".

In addition we hear extracts from three of the 15 extant masses of Clemens non Papa. The Missa Gaude lux Donatiane was composed in honour of the patron of Brughes cathedral, where Clemens was succentor from March 1544 to June 1545. From this mass we hear the Kyrie, which, according to Van Nevel, "is the longest and most exciting Mass sections from the first half of the 16th century". In his performance it takes almost seven minutes.

Those who know previous recordings of the Huelgas Ensemble know what to expect: superior singing, immaculate intonation, a perfect blending of the voices and a transparency which belie the size of the ensemble, consisting here of 13 voices. There is no reference as to which singers are involved in which piece. I have the impression that some pieces are sung with less singers. Whatever the size of the ensemble and the historically most plausible number of singers, from a musical point of view one can hardly complain if the performances are of such a high standard. The expression in the various motets and chansons comes off to the full. The mass movements are equally well sung. Van Nevel also pays attention to a historically plausible pronunciation of the Latin texts, which is in line with what is assumed to have been common practice in Flanders. The pronunciation of the Dutch texts is remarkably good, considering that most members of the ensemble are not native Dutch speakers.

The quality of the performance is in contrast to the sloppiness of the production. In his liner-notes Paul Van Nevel refers to various pieces in the programme with the track-numbers, but these are all incorrect. According to the track-list we should hear not only the Kyrie, but also the Agnus Dei from the Missa Gaude lux Donatiane, but that is not the case. The English translation of the liner-notes says that Archduke Maximilian sent a letter "announcing his intention of forming an orchestra of his own". Apparently the translator doesn't know enough about music history to understand that a "music chapel" in the 16th century doesn't mean an "orchestra".

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Huelgas Ensemble

CD Reviews