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Concert reviews

"Christmas in the Renaissance"

Ensemble Epsilon/Maud Hamon-Loisance
concert: Dec 18, 2014, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Jacobus HANDL-GALLUS (1550-1591): Duo Seraphim; Ecce concipies et paries filium; Iam non dicam vos servos; Laetamini cum Jerusalem; Missa super Iam non dicam (Kyrie; Gloria); O magnum mysterium; Propter Syon non tacebo; Rorate caeli; Sancta Trinitas; Venite ascendamus; Vox clamantis in deserto; Cristóbal DE MORALES (1500-1553): Ecce virgo concipiet; O magnum mysterium; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Hodie Christus natus est; Missa Hodie Christus natus est (Kyrie; Sanctus; Agnus Dei); Dominique PHINOT (1510-1556): Iam non dicam vos servos; Sancta Trinitas; plainchant: Rorate caeli; Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (1548-1611): O magnum mysterium

Maud Hamon-Loisance, Magali Pérol-Dumora, soprano; Jonathan De Ceuster, Yann Rolland, alto; Julien Drevet-Santique, Martial Pauliat, tenor; Romain Bockler, baritone; Anass Ismat, bas-baritone; Guillemette Schricke, organ

Music for double choir always exerts a strong attraction on performers and audiences. That is partly due to the logistics: two groups placed in different spaces in a church often create a spectacular effect. Moreover, the best-known repertoire for double choir was written in Venice, in particular by Giovanni Gabrieli, and his music is often spectacular in itself, especially if performed with cornetts and sackbuts.

However, the technique of cori spezzati, as it is called, was also used for the purpose of expression. That struck me when I attended a concert of the French Ensemble Epsilon, on 18 December in Utrecht. One of the interesting aspects of the programme was the absence of composers from Venice. Instead we heard music by Palestrina, Victoria and Morales - all household names - but also of a composer who doesn't ring a bell with music lovers: Dominique Phinot. And even Jacobus Handl-Gallus is still an almost unknown quantity, even though some of his oeuvre is available on disc.

The latter's qualities came already to the fore in the concert of the Huelgas Ensemble during this year's Festival Early Music Utrecht. He was represented here with a series of motets for eight voices in two choirs which were performed at the end of the programme. In these works the ensemble mostly made use of the organ gallery of the Geertekerk which created a kind of spaciousness this not very large church in fact does not have. A larger church would have been a better venue for this repertoire. In the pieces before the interval the ensemble sang in two groups facing each other on the platform. Obviously that doesn't have the same effect. The difference came up especially in a piece by Dominique Phinot, Sancta Trinitas. The ensemble split itself up in two halves, standing left and right of the audience. That is when I felt the additional expressive power of music for double choir more than at any time during the concert. Composers must have used the cori spezzati technique not just to create a spectacular effect, but also to underline the emotional content of the text.

How much composers were fascinated by the possibilities of splitting a vocal ensemble was demonstrated in other pieces by Handl-Gallus. Although the two motets in the first part were for six voices he creates a kind of double choir by juxtaposing the high and the low voices. One of these motets was Iam non dicam vos servos which was followed by two sections from his mass with the same title. However, he didn't use the material of his own motet for this mass, but rather that of the motet with the same text by Dominique Phinot, which opened the concert. Phinot was a Franco-Flemish composer who probably spent part of his career in Italy. But the year of his death shows that he can hardly have known the music for double choir as it developed in Venice. His music for this scoring precedes what would become one of the features of Venetian sacred music. One could even imagine that he may have influenced the masters of the Venetian double-choir practice as in 1548 he already published a book with motets, including a number for double choir. The two motets performed during the concert attested to the quality of his oeuvre, and he definitely deserves more attention.

Another interesting aspect of this concert was the performance of motets with the same text by several composers. O magnum mysterium was performed three times: first in a setting by Cristóbal de Morales, then in a version by Tomás Luis de Victoria, and lastly in a setting by Handl-Gallus. Although Morales and Victoria were both Spanish, there is about 50 years between their respective motets with this same text, and the differences are striking. Victoria's setting is rhythmically livelier and shows a closer connection between text and music, and probably because of that has a more direct emotional impact..

Palestrina's oeuvre bears witness to the fact that not only in Venice composers wrote music for two choirs. Rome had a tradition of its own in this department, although there are some differences in the application of the technique of cori spezzati. His motet Hodie Christus natus est and the Mass he based on his own motet, from which we heard Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, are impressive examples of the way he wrote for two choirs. The sections for reduced forces didn't always come off perfectly as there were insecurities in some of the voices and now and then the intonation was a little suspect. But those were only minor issues in a memorable concert.

The Ensemble Epsilon was founded in 2009, but I had never heard it before. It probably performed in the Netherlands for the very first time. The acquaintance was very enjoyable. The eight voices blended perfectly, and the ensemble was not disturbed by vibrato in some of them. Especially when four of the singers stood close to where I was seated - in Phinot's motet Sancta Trinitas mentioned before - I could hear what good voices these singers have. They produce a sound which is quite different from what we hear from Anglo-Saxon ensembles which still dominate the scene in sacred renaissance music. I have the feeling that this sound may be closer to how this kind of music was sung at the time it was composed. The ensemble sang with commitment and passion and the expressive features of the repertoire were well conveyed. The choice of repertoire, which included music by some lesser-known composers, deserves praise.

I hope to hear more from Ensemble Epsilon, both in concerts and on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Concert reviews