musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"Christmas in 16th-century Leiden"

Egidius Kwartet/Peter de Groot
concert: Dec 19, 2012, Ammerzoden, Ammersoyen Castle

anon: Christe qui lux es; Ibant magi; Ihesus is een kyndekyn scoen; Nu sijt wellecome; Benedictus APPENZELLER (c1485-c1558): O magnum mysterium; Cornelius CANIS (c1515-1562): Missa Pastores loquebantur; Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (c1510-c1556): Angelus Domini ad pastores; Jerusalem surge; Pastores loquebantur; Thomas CRECQUILLON (c1515-1557): O beata infantia; Johannes LUPI (c1506-1539): Quem vidistis pastores; Pierre DE MANCHICOURT (c1510-1564): Reges terrae; Joachimus DE MONTE (fl 1550-1555): A solis ortus cardine

Peter de Groot, alto; Jon Etxabe-Arzuaga, tenor; Hans Weijers, baritone; Donald Bentvelsen, bass; with: Michaela Riener, soprano; Joćo Moreira, tenor

Every year a Christmas concert takes place in the medieval castle Ammersoyen in Ammerzoden, halfway between Utrecht and 's-Hertogenbosch. It is the perfect venue for music of the Middle Ages or renaissance, although the acoustic is less than ideal for liturgical repertoire. This time it was the Egidius Kwartet, who was joined by two additional singers, which presented a programme of polyphony of the 16th century as it was sung in the Pieterskerk (St Peter's Church) in Leiden.

The music was taken from the so-called Leiden Choirbooks, a unique treasure which gives a good idea of the kind of repertoire which was sung in the pre-Reformation Low Countries. Six books have been preserved which is a kind of miracle. Not only because very little of the music which was sung in churches in the Netherlands has come down to us, but particularly because of the iconoclasm which took place as part of the Reformation in the northern Netherlands. In Leiden this happened in 1566, when supporters of the Reformation forced their way into churches and started to destroy images of saints and other objects which were the expression of the Roman Catholic doctrine and liturgy. Probably because they were carefully kept the choirbooks survived the turbulations and have been preserved until today.

The Egidius Kwartet is involved in a project of recording a selection from these choirbooks which are also performed in public concerts. Up until now three sets of two discs each have been released (the first volume is reviewed here; the next two will be reviewed in due course).

The music was sung by the singers of the liturgical hours in the Pieterskerk in Leiden. In his liner-notes to Volume 1 of the recording project Eric Jas writes: "The singing of the seven liturgical hours grew enormously in popularity in the Netherlands during the 15th century. In point of fact, a College of the Seven Hours was simply an imitation of a chapter. In chapter churches, just as in convents and monasteries, the hours - also called the Office or choral prayer - were sung: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Matins and Lauds were combined to form the nocturnal office whilst Vespers and Compline together formed evening prayer."

The choirbooks comprise music by some of the most famous representatives of the Franco-Flemish school which dominated the music scene in Europe for much of the renaissance. Among them are Jacobus Clemens non Papa, Thomas Crecquillon and Pierre de Manchicourt who were all represented in the programme of this Christmas concert. Less well-known is Benedictus Appenzeller; the choirbooks also contain pieces by local composers, such as Joachimus de Monte (not to be confused with Philippe de Monte), and one may assume that many anonymous pieces were also written by composers from the northern Netherlands or even in or around Leiden.

The central piece in the programme was the Missa Pastores loquebantur by Cornelius Canis. He was born in Ghent and for a number of years worked for the Habsburg emperor Charles V, until 1555. This mass, based upon a motet of his own, is intended for the Christmas period, but written in a minor key - the Phrygian mode - which is hard to explain. In his programme-notes Peter de Groot suggested the reason could have been the death of Canis' former employer in September 1558, the news of which may have reached Canis probably only months later, somewhere during Advent. Canis seems to have omitted the Credo; it was neither performed during the concert nor recorded in Volume 3 of the recording project. I don't think this mass would be recorded incomplete. Musically remarkable is that in the Agnus Dei the six parts are extended to eight, a very rare procedure in the Franco-Flemish repertoire of that time. As only six singers were available the closing sections were omitted and replaced, as it were, by a Dutch song from the 15th century.

I already indicated that the acoustic was less than ideal for this kind of music. In the first pieces either the singing was a little too loud or my ears weren't quite adjusted to the acoustical circumstances. It took a while until the music started to unfold in a really satisfying way. The audience was richly rewarded as the performance did full justice to the character and quality of the polyphony from the choirbooks. The six voices, performing in various combinations, blended perfectly and the balance within the ensemble was also satisfying. The austere character of Canis's mass came off with greater incisiveness than on disc, probably due to the lack of reverberation which otherwise was rather disadvantageous. As on the discs the Latin pronunciation was very much like it is used in polyphony by French composers.

The vocal items were separated by Dutch poems of the renaissance which were recited by members of the ensemble. Some did that pretty well, others were less convincing. On the whole these poems should have been treated more carefully and preferably have been recited by a professional reciter. This part was the only disappointment of the concert.

The main thing is that the series of performances of which this was one has brought this music to the attention of a wider audience. That is well deserved. It is also to be hoped that the pieces of the Leiden Choirbooks are going to enter the repertoire of other vocal ensembles as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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