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Concert reviews

Josquin Desprez: Sacred music

Collegium Voale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
concert: March 21, 2011, Utrecht, Cathedral (Domkerk)

Ave Maria, gratia plena a 4; Ave maris stella a 4; Illibata Dei virgo nutrix a 5; Missa Ave maris stella a 4; Que vous ma dame/In pace in idipsum a 3; Salve Regina a 5; Vultum tuum deprecabuntur a 4

Annelies Brants, Juliet Fraser, Dominique Verkinderen, soprano; Alex Potter, Alexander Schneider, alto; David Munderloh, Kevin Skelton, tenor I; Tobias Hunger, Manuel Warwitz, tenor II; Matthias Lutze, Stephan MacLeod, Adrian Peacock, bass

Philippe Herreweghe has become known as a conductor of baroque music. In recent years he has more and more extended his repertoire into the 19th and 20th centuries. But during his career he has also devoted his attention now and then to music of the renaissance. He has recorded music of the 16th century, for instance by Lassus and Hassler, with various ensembles, for instance the Ensemble vocal européen. Music of an earlier date in his discography is rare, but Josquin is an exception as he has previously recorded a disc with music by this master of the Franco-Flemish school, with the Collegium Vocale Gent, the choir he founded in 1970.

Recently a concert tour with this ensemble provided the opportunity to hear them perform some specimens of Josquins brilliant sacred oeuvre. I heard this concert in the Cathedral of Utrecht, whose reverberant acoustics helped to make this music blossom. Herreweghe sensitively indicated he didn't want any applause between the pieces, although the whole programme lasted about 75 minutes. As a result he was able to create a kind of magical tension which was only underlined by the immaculate performances of the Collegium Vocale Gent.

Impressive as always was the perfect blending of the voices, both within the various voice groups as between them. The singers performed in various combinations, which didn't effect the quality of the singing in any way. Crucial in this repertoire are the intonation and the delivery, and as the latter aspect is one of Herreweghe's pet notions one can be sure this was faultless.

The programme started with a motet in seven parts, Vultum tuum deprecabuntur, the first six of which - all addressed to the Virgin Mary - were sung without interruption. The seventh motet is then addressed to Christ, and here Herreweghe included a short silence, after which the motet was sung at a lower volume. This way the conclusion was effectively singled out, indicating its importance. Next came the motet in two sections, Illibata Dei Virgo nutrix which has a cantus firmus of just three notes in the tenor with the text "la-mi-la". It was sung by four singers at the pulpit, slightly above and behind the ensemble. As they sang the cantus firmus with great sonority, the effect was magical.

The main item in the programme was the Missa Ave maris stella, based on the hymn which Josquin has also set himself for four voices, and which was also sung. Despite the length of this mass Herreweghe was able to keep the tension, and the clear shaping of the lines and the transparency of the ensemble allowed to follow the various lines of the polyphony. After a 5-part Salve Regina the concert closed with Josquin's most famous piece - and one of the best-known compositions in music history -, the four-part motet Ave Maria. It has been performed and recorded numerous times, and every time it makes a great impression. It wasn't any different here. The closing section was simply magical, also because of the perfect balance within the ensemble, whose voices melted together in the closing "Amen". The refined and subtle ending of the motet and the concert was characteristic of the whole performance.

There may be many ensembles today which fully concentrate on performing the polyphony of the renaissance, the Collegium Vocale Ghent can easily compete with them under the direction of a master like Philippe Herreweghe.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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