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Concert reviews

"500 Years Cipriano de Rore"
Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
concert: Oct 29, 2015, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Amour me faict 5; Datemi pace 4; Dissimulare etiam sperasti 5-7; Donec gratus eram tibi 8; Mia benigna fortuna 4; Missa Doulce memoire 5 (Sanctus; Agnus Dei); Missa Praeter rerum seriem 7 (Agnus Dei); Mon petit coeur 8; O fortuna potens 5; O socii nequen enim 5; Quis tuos presul 6

Axelle Bernage, Sabine Lutzenberger, Poline Renou, soprano; Witte Maria Weber, contralto; Timothy Leigh Evans, Bernd Oliver Frhlich, Tom Phillips, Matthew Vine, tenor; Frederik Sjollema, baritone; Guillaume Olry, bass

This year the death of one of the greatest composers of the renaissance, Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565), is commemorated. If you didn't notice, don't feel guilty. It has been given little attention. As far as I can tell hardly any discs devoted to his music have been released. I received just one which will be reviewed on this site later. There was at least some compensation: Paul Van Nevel presented a cross-section of Rore's oeuvre in a series of concerts with his Huelgas Ensemble. Here the main genres to which he contributed were represented.

Cipriano de Rore was born in Ronse in Flanders; nothing is known about his early musical education. It has been suggested that in the 1530s he was already active as a singer in St Mark's in Venice, where his compatriot Adrian Willaert was maestro di cappella, but there seems to be no firm evidence of this. For the most part of his life he worked at the court of Duke Ercole II d'Este in Ferrara. During this period he published more than half of his total output, including a number of collections of madrigals. It is especially in this department that he became famous and exerted great influence on following generations of composers, such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Luca Marenzio and even Claudio Monteverdi. The most striking feature of his music is his attempt to express the meaning of the text in music. To that end he often turns to homophony which makes the text better understandable. He also makes use of musical figures to depict a word or phrase, chromaticism and dissonants to express strong emotions and variation in tempo.

The programme of the Huelgas Ensemble included various compositions in which these features come to the fore. Mon petit choeur is a striking example of Rore's harmonic experiments, and particularly this aspect points in the direction of someone like Luzzaschi, who on his turn was highly admired by Carl Gesualdo, who himself knew a thing or two about the use of harmony in the interest of text expression. Datemi pace is a madrigal in which Rore makes use of homophony to single out specific passages in the text. These have sometimes a strongly declamatory character. This aspect must have been particularly inspiring to representatives of the seconda prattica in the early 17th century, such as Monteverdi. This can also explain that Rore's music was reprinted as late as 40 years after his death. An impressive specimen of hi's striving for text expression is Mia benigna fortuna. The fact that it was sung here by only four voices made its features even more evident. Words and phrases like "le tranquille notte" (peaceful nights), "sospiri" (sighs) and "in dogl'en pianto" (in pains and tears) were eloquently illustrated. This was all sung with great subtlety by the Huelgas Ensemble. The harmonic experiments came perfectly off due to the excellent intonation and impeccable blending of the voices.

The programme started with three pieces on texts - in Latin, of course - by Vergil. O socii, neque enim is a setting of Aeneas' words of encouragement towards his companions during a storm at sea. It is a quite dramatic piece, also because one voice repeats the word "durate" (endure) throughout the whole work. Rore uses the same procedure in O fortuna potens, again on a text by Virgil: the opening words - "o powerful fate" - are repeated a number of times by one voice. In the performance by the Huelgas Ensemble this part was sung in unison by a tenor and a soprano, standing separately from the ensemble on the right and the left of the stage. Dissimulare etiam sperasti is about Dido and Aeneas, and again one was struck by the way Rore is able to bring a considerable amount of drama to this text. Words such as "perfide" and "crudelis" were given special attention, and in the third part Rore uses a shift in tempo to underline the content. The second classical author represented in the programme was Horace. In Donec gratus eram the author is involved is a dialogue with Lydia. Rore has set this piece for eight voices in two groups: the high voices sing the words of Lydia and the low voices the words of Horace. In the last stanza they are joined together as they proclaim their eternal love. The piece is dominated by homophony which guarantees the optimum audibility of the text.

It was probably a little surprising that very few liturgical compositions were included in the programme. That can be explained from the fact that Rore's oeuvre doesn't include that many sacred works. The mass which held a predominant position in the hierarchy of musical genres during the renaissance is not that well represented: Rore's work-list in New Grove mentions only four masses; a fifth is incomplete and of doubtful authenticity. In this programme both halves were concluded with sections from two masses. In the first half we heard Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Missa Doulce Memoire, based on the famous chanson by Pierre Sandrin. The concert ended with the Agnus Dei from the Missa Praeter rerum seriem, which is based on Josquin's 7-part motet. Rore composed this mass for his long-time employer Ercole II d'Este. In these mass fragments we heard the more 'traditional' side of Rore: his mastery of classical counterpoint, although not devoid of expression, for instance in the Agnus Dei from the Missa Doulce memoire in which Rore turns to homophony to emphasize the words "miserere nobis" and uses long-held notes for the closing words "dona nobis pacem", repeated a number of times as if to give it more urgency.

Paul Van Nevel and his Huelgas Ensemble demonstrated why Rore was held in such high esteem in his time. That makes it all the more regrettable and hard to understand that he is largely neglected by vocal ensembles and the recording industry. However, one probably needs an ensemble of Huelgas' quality to do justice to his experiments in the field of text expression. As Van Nevel explained in an interview on the radio the understanding and interpretation of De Rore begins with carefully reading the texts. Obviously he and his singers have done just that. It resulted in a compelling performance of music by one of the most intriguing musical personalities of the 16th century.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

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