Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus
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Paul van Nevel and his Huelgas Ensemble have made a practice of resuscitating the music of forgotten medieval and Renaissance composers (especially their Flemish compatriots). The subject of this disc is quite a find: Manchicourt was choirmaster to none other than Philip II. His music is unusual: He uses many false relations (dissonant cadences where the same note gets different accidentals in different voices) and he habitually leads up to cadences only to delay them. Still, it is eminently worth hearing, especially in these skilled hands. The Huelgas Ensemble has a dark Flemish tone color very different from the English choirs who dominate this repertory; while their performances sometimes seem flat and lacking in energy, their singing here is engrossing. --Matthew Westphal
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Paul van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble have spent the last 40 years unearthing and recording the works of hitherto unknown masters of the "Netherlandish School." These composers from the Low Countries dominated European music from the end of the 15th century until the last third of the 16th century, when their magnificent music became unfashionable due to religious reformation and political upheaval in the Netherlands, as well as the late but fatal intrusion of the Humanist Renaissance and its pathetic "imitation" of ancient music - accompanied monody - into the Italian musical scene. The Huelgas Ensemble are best known for discovering and recording Brumel's "Earthquake Mass," but I believe that this Manchicourt CD is of even greater value.
The Huelgas Ensemble normally performs with 2 or 3 singers assigned to each part, and herein lies, in my estimation, their most frequent problem. We all know how difficult it is to sing 16th-century polyphony a cappella and in tune. It is easiest when the music is sung with only One Voice Per Part and the performers are therefore only required to tune their lines against the other parts. Many musicians, including Paul van Nevel, want a more 'choral' sound with greater possibilities for contrast than those offered by OVPP. But put more than one singer on a part, and suddenly the performers have to tune to the other voices on their own part as well. When a large and very competent choir like that of Westminster Cathedral sings this kind of music, with a half dozen singers on every part, the acoustic effect is not unlike that of a string section in an orchestra: the sympathetic human ear effectively "blends" the slightly disparate notes of a dozen 2nd violinists into one note. Such large ensembles, however, rarely have the agility needed to pull off this 16th-century polyphony.
So the Huelgas Ensemble and many other groups try to steer a middle course by assigning just 2 or 3 singers to each part. This gives a slightly more 'choral' sound than OVPP, and those 2 or 3 singers will be more agile than half a dozen. But a new problem arises here: the above-mentioned 'blending' phenomenon does not occur when there are only 2 or 3 singers on a part, so if those 2 or 3 singers are even a few cents off in their tuning, the result will be horrific. The Huelgas Ensemble do not always avoid this trap. Their pioneering recording of Nicholas Gombert's Missa Tempore Paschali Music From Court of Charles V, for example, is much inferior to the one-voice-per-part recording of the same work by Henry's Eight Gombert: Missa Tempore paschali. But on the present CD, the Huelgas Ensemble were at the top of their game, and there are very few places on the disc where this issue even comes to mind. And unlike some of the prominent English groups singing this repertoire, the Huelgas Ensemble have never suffered from problems of balance. Every part, all the way down to the basses, is clearly audible in this recording, leaving us free to concentrate on the glories of Manchicourt's music.
And glorious it is. Like his better-known contemporary Gombert, Pierre de Manchicourt (c.1510-1564) abandoned the symmetric, schematic style of Josquin and Isaac, and struck out for new musical territory. Manchicourt's texture is often thicker than Josquin's, and although he does sometimes use paired imitation, there is more variety in chord spacing and voice groupings. For word painting, he will sometimes use the melismas so beloved of the generation before him. His "modulations," to use an anachronism, are occasionally as bold as Adriaan Willaert's. But none of Manchicourt's contemporaries achieved anything like his art in using cross rhythms (e.g. between duple and triple time) to build to a climax, or his subtlety in preparing but then skirting - sometimes just once, sometimes several times in succession - an authentic cadence (sorry again for the anachronism). Often, by the time an authentic cadence does finally arrive, it is partly obscured by a new entry in another voice. This mastery at delaying and disguising cadences (strangely reminiscent of Brahms) and the unpredictability of the long but rarely symmetrical phrases which result from it, lend Manchicourt's music a suspense which would have been completely alien to Josquin or Isaac. Manchicourt's way of playing with cadences throws extra importance onto the performers' decisions regarding where to raise the seventh degree of a mode in order to form an authentic cadence. Often, that long-awaited leading tone must be sung even when it will clash with an uninflected version of the same note in another voice. These dissonant false relations - at cadences and elsewhere - are part and parcel of mid-16th-century Netherlandish style. Many groups still get this wrong, but the Huelgas Ensemble have never been afraid of these delicious 'harmonic' clashes.
For this CD the Huelgas Ensemble recorded 3 of Manchicourt's chansons, 4 motets, and the MISSA VENI SANCTE SPIRITUS. The chansons are well sung and, not surprisingly, lighter than the liturgical music. Every one of the 4 motets is impressive in its own way, and the Huelgas Ensemble manage to find the right pacing and rhetorical structure for each of them.
The motet that begins this CD, REGES TERRAE, is in something like a minor key centered on G, and the piece has also been recorded by both the Sixteen and the Nordic Voices: Reges Terrae: Music from the Time of Charles V [Hybrid SACD]. The Nordic Voices use their remarkably beautiful and smooth sound to create a very different version of Reges Terrae from that of the Huelgas Ensemble. As sung by the Nordic Voices, REGES TERRAE is much slower*, has different accidentals, and is unspeakably sad. This is all very well until you consider that the text of Reges Terrae is for Epiphany and tells how the 3 Kings of Orient met and then proceeded to Judea to find and honor the Rex Magnus. In other words, the text is a joyful, celebratory one. Manchicourt's use of a "minor" sound for this happy text should not surprise anyone familiar with 16th-century music; the 16th-century feeling for the emotional connotations of "keys" often seems to directly contradict our own. Something resembling F major, for example, was their favourite "key" of mourning, and when setting a joyful text, these Netherlanders were just as likely to turn to something like one of our minor keys as one of our major keys. But the Nordic Voices think the "minor key" of Reges Terrae should be a sad one, and make their 3 Kings' journey to Judea so lugubriously slow that their interpretation ends up being a betrayal of the text. The Huelgas Ensemble rightly think that Manchicourt's "minor key" in Reges Terrae should be a happy one, and sing the work at an energetic tempo that perfectly suits the text. *(timings for this motet: Nordic Voices 8:15, Huelgas Ensemble 5:50)
The motet MARIA MAGDALENE is a masterpiece that only Manchicourt could have written. Its opening phrase tells of how Mary Magdalen and the other Mary went at dawn to Christ's tomb. Manchicourt extends dawn almost ad infinitum with what just might be the longest-delayed authentic cadence of the 16th century. The cadence finally arrives after all five voices have entered. Then a new, melismatic point of imitation describes the Marys' seeking for Christ, with entries spaced ever more closely together like growing nervousness at not finding what they are looking for, until the Marys learn from a new upward-leaping motif that Christ is risen. The Alleluia that ends the motet's first section gives us several false-relation-tinged authentic cadences one right after another. Although neither the basic rhythm nor the "minor" key of the motet has changed since it began, the end of this motet's first section feels very different from its beginning. The gray uncertainty of dawn has become the confidence of the resurrection. In the second section of the motet, the Marys (and the Huelgas Ensemble along with them) follow the angel's instruction to go quickly and tell the disciples, after which the Alleluia breaks out once more. As we see in this motet, Manchicourt's art is a subtle one. Not an art of sudden, extroverted gestures or obvious contrasts of affect, but an extraordinarily powerful art nonetheless, where mastery of cadence, phrase rhythm, and dissonance can create contrast in a way that would never have occurred to Josquin or Isaac.
In the motet USQUEQUO PIGER DORMIES, which asks the slugabed how long he will sleep before taking the ant's example and getting to work, Manchicourt starts by moping about in a melisma-shaded Phrygian mode, a sound which serves as an effective musical illustration of sloth. Here the Huelgas Ensemble prove that they too, can sing slowly when the text justifies it. The ants are then treated to more lively and industrious music, of course. Are there many other examples of this kind of humor in 16th-century liturgical music?
As good as these motets may be, the real meat of this CD is the MISSA VENI SANCTE SPIRITUS. Sony's liner notes do us a great favor here by printing, in its entirety, the Pentecost sequence (ie. Gregorian Chant) upon which Manchicourt based the mass. This enables us to follow Manchicourt's kaleidoscopic transformations of his starting material. Every movement of the mass offers something interesting, from the unusual scoring of the Credo (one superius, one contratenor, two tenors and two basses) to the striking modulation at "Dominus Deus Sabaoth" in the Sanctus. The long plagal cadence onto 'homo factus est' in the Credo is as impressive as Gombert's plagal cadences, and the cross rhythms in the middle section of the Credo (from "Crucifixus est" to "Et iterum venturus est") are simply dazzling. My only gripe about the Huelgas Ensemble's recording of this magnificent mass is that they have put the motets - not too annoying - and even the secular songs - much more annoying - in between the movements of the mass. Obviously this can be rectified by reprogramming the tracks on your stereo.
The music on this disc, together with the music on the Brabant Ensemble's Manchicourt album Pierre de Manchicourt: Missa Cuidez vous que Dieu nous faille, leaves us in no doubt as to the value of this composer. In a generation of very great musicians, Pierre de Manchicourt was one of the greatest, and we can only hope that more choirs will take up his banner in the same way as the Huelgas Ensemble.