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Pierre de LA RUE & Johannes OCKEGHEM: Masses & Requiems

[I] Pierre de LA RUE (c1460 - 1518): "Masses"
Beauty Farm
rec: Dec 2016, Kartause Mauerbach (refectory)
fra bernardo - fb 1800751 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (2.09'10")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Missa Almana a 4; Missa De Sancto Antonio a 4; Missa Puer natus est nobis a 4; Missa Tous les regretz a 4

Bart Uvyn, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, Hannes Wagner, tenor; Joachim Höchbauer, bass

[II] Johannes OCKEGHEM, Pierre de LA RUE: "Requiem"
Diabolus in Musica
Dir: Antoine Guerber
rec: Nov 5 - 8, 2017, Fontevraud, Abbaye
Bayard Musique - 308 475.2 (© 2018) (66'47")
Liner-notes: F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover & track-list
Score La Rue
Score Ockeghem

Pierre de LA RUE (c1460-1518): Missa pro fidelibus defunctis a 5; Johannes OCKEGHEM (1420-1497): Missa pro defunctis a 4

Frédéric Bétous, alto; Raphaël Boulay, Branislav Rakic, tenor; Romain Bockler, baritone; Emmanuel Vistorky, bass-baritone; Philippe Roche, Joel Frederiksen, bass

Pierre de La Rue is one of the main representatives of the so-called Franco-Flemish school. His oeuvre is large and versatile, but his reputation rests especially on his masses and his chansons. The latter were mainly the result of his association with Margaret of Austria, whose favourite composer he was. Both genres are well represented on disc, much better than other parts of his output, such as motets and Magnificat settings.

For most of his life La Rue was in the service of the Habsburg-Burgundian court. Before that he spent some time at several cathedrals in Germany and the Habsburg Netherlands, and from 1489 to 1492 he worked in 's-Hertogenbosch. That part of his career has been documented by the Cappella Pratensis. The present set of discs includes four masses from different stages in his career, although it is mostly not possible to put a date on them.

As was customary at the time, many of his masses make use of pre-existing material, but whereas other composers regularly turned to secular pieces, La Rue almost exclusively uses liturgical chants. His oeuvre also includes a number of masses whose titles refer to the occasion for which they were written, such as the feast day of a saint (Missa de Sancto Antonio). In such masses he mostly uses several chants as his material for the musical fabric.

In the case of the Missa Almana it has not been possible to identify the meaning of the title. It is even questionable if it refers to a musical composition. Wolfgang Fuhrmann, in his liner-notes, mentions several suggestions, including the possibility that it is a corruption of the Spanish word for alemana, the (female) German. In that case it could refer to Margaret of Austria's time in Spain as the wife of Prince Juan of Aragón and Castile, who died in 1497. It is notable that Petrucci, who published this mass, called it Missa Sexti. Ut fa. The latter notes are are the first two of the motif which opens each of the five sections: c - f - e - a.

One of La Rue's masses which are based on a secular model, is the Missa Tous les regretz, a chanson of his own pen, and - as so many of his chansons - of a rather melancholic nature. That has left its mark on the mass, especially in some passages from the Gloria and the Agnus Dei. This mass is a relatively late work. Here La Rue uses material from all the voices of his chanson, whereas in other masses he often confines himself to single motifs from a piece.

The Missa de Sancto Antonio is intended for the feast of St Anthony (Anthony the Great), on 17 January. He was also the patron saint of the courtier Antoine de Lalaing, a confident of Margaret. The mass is based on Sanctus Anthonius habitans in abditis, an antiphon for Anthony. The melody is often strongly ornamented, which makes it difficult to recognize. But the recognition of the musical material by an audience was obviously never the intention of a composer.

The fourth mass included here is, as the title Missa Puer natus est nobis indicates, intended for Christmas. Alongside the Missa Almana it is part of a printed edition of 1503 by Petrucci. Imitation plays a major role in this work, and in passages for reduced forces - a feature of masses by composers of the Franco-Flemish school - he never uses fewer than three voices, whereas other masses include passages for two voices. The model is the Introit to the Mass for Christmas Day. The entire hymn is quoted and ascending fifths appear in several passages, for instance in the Credo on the words "Et resurrexit", depicting the text. Another example of text illustration in the same section is the rising figure on "Et ascendit".

Beauty Farm is an ensemble which was founded in 2014 with the specific aim of performing and recording specimens of Franco-Flemish polyphony. In recent years several discs have been released, in which masses are performed as concert pieces. No attempts are made to present them in a kind of liturgical framework. In a way that is regrettable, as they are meant for liturgical performance. However, liturgical reconstructions are mostly highly speculative, and performing liturgical music in the form of a concert is common these days. The nice thing is that the ensemble focuses on music that is less familiar. It seems that the four masses recorded here are not available in other recordings. That makes this disc an important addition to the discography. At first I was not entirely happy with the ensemble, but soon I got used to the voice of Hans Jörg Mammel, who is an excellent interpreter of baroque repertoire, and whom I not immediately associate with this kind of repertoire. On the whole I am very happy with these performances, which are of great beauty. The Italian pronunciation of Latin is historically untenable. The recording could have been a little more spatious, but all in all it is satisfying.

The second disc brings together settings of the Requiem Mass by Pierre de La Rue and Johannes Ockeghem. That makes much sense. They are the two earliest extant Requiems; it is known that Guillaume Dufay also composed a Requiem Mass, but that has been lost.

The settings by La Rue and Ockeghem have several things in common. Firstly, we do not know for which occasion they were written. The recitation of Requiems was quite common at the time. As Edward Wickham writes in the liner-notes to his recording of La Rue's Requiem (together with the setting by Antoine Brumel; Gaudeamus, 2005): "This was not a liturgy restricted to funeral services. One of the most common strategies of evading - or at least expediting - the soul's sojourn in Purgatory was to leave financial provision for the intoning of Requiem masses on the death day of the sinner in question; and just in case the Almighty was not paying attention the first time bequests would often specify several recitations, one after the other." However, it seems that polyphonic Requiems were only intended for specific occasions. This explains why there are not that many settings that have come down to us.

The second similarity is the scoring. Both settings include unusually low parts. It seems likely that La Rue was influenced by Ockeghem's setting. The two composers knew each other well and met at several occasions. La Rue also composed a motet in honour of Ockeghem at the occasion of the master's death. There is a difference, though: La Rue's scoring is more differentiated. Wickham points out that renaissance notation was not intended to indicate fixed sounding pitches, and this offers the possibility to transpose the mass upwards. Whether that is recommendable is a matter of debate. Antoine Guerber, in his recording with his ensemble Diabolus in Musica, decided to stick to the notation as written down. Unfortunately, the issue is not discussed in the liner-notes (which are very concise and only in French). It results in a quite spectacular sonority, especially in the Agnus Dei.

In Ockeghem's setting the low voices are also quite present, and it has a strong impact on how this work comes off. The low voices of the ensemble are impressive, and the presence of Joel Frederiksen, as far as I know not a regular member of the ensemble, is of great value here.

Another difference between the two settings need to be mentioned. The Requiem Mass did not have a fixed form, unlike the Mass Ordinary. Therefore Requiem Masses often comprise different sections. Ockeghem omitted the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. Whether that was deliberate, or whether the copyist did omit them - for whatever reason - is impossible to decide. In Guerber's performance they are sung in the way of a fauxbourdon: a second voice is added to the plainchant. La Rue, on the other hand, omitted the Graduale. This has not been added, as there is no indication that La Rue did intend to set it.

These two Requiems are quite well known and available in several recordings, among them the one by the Cappella Pratensis. It is a very fine recording, but as Guerber does not make use of transposition, his performances can be treated as alternatives. I am happy to have both of them, especially as the singing of Diabolus in Musica is excellent. They also use a historically correct pronunciation. Anyone interested in renaissance polyphony should consider adding this disc to his collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Diabolus in Musica

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