Pierre de LA RUE (c.1460-1518)
Missa de Feria [25.18]
O domine, Jesu Christe (two lutes) [2.43]
Regina Celi (two lutes) [4.06]
Salve Regina (two lutes) [3.25]
Pater de celis Deus [9.36]
Missa Sancta Dei genitrix [22.39]
Gothic Voices/Christopher Page
Christopher Wilson (lute); Shirley Rumsey (lute)
rec. September 1997, Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, United Kingdom
Originally issued as CDA67010
HYPERION HELIOS CDH 55296 [65.35]
It was over the twenty or more years that Gothic Voices were producing their annual and eagerly awaited recording; in all about twenty discs. There is no doubt that although Christopher Page caused much controversy in the otherwise quiet coterie of early music scholarship their performances were often riveting, involving and exciting. One admired the ensemble work, the choice of repertoire, the revealing booklet notes and the sheer quality of the singing. Almost everything was a cappella with just an occasional medieval harp which Page himself played. It seemed that the music spoke much better without the colourings of weird and wonderful crumhorns, cornemuse and percussion that we had been used to. To a great degree this is an opinion still held by many including this reviewer.
All that said, I started to have some reservations in the mid-1990s, if not earlier, when I first heard an a cappella version of Machaut’s Rose Liz by the American group Project Ars Nova on New Albion Records (NA068). I knew the Gothic Voices version on The Mirror of Narcissus (Hyperion CDA 66087) but had come to find it chaste and overly clean, very open and front of the mouth. This American version was a little more closed, subtle and rather more melancholy with a lovely rubato-like sensitivity to line that Page’s bright, harder-edged reading did not possess. I fell in love with this music for the first time.
I then started to ask myself questions about dynamics. I have sung much early music from my boyhood and listened to and studied a great deal. I am aware that the audience’s attention often needs to be held and one way of achieving this is through dynamic shading. This is surely a natural and needful thing for performers and listeners. In the GV recordings of secular music most of the pieces last two or three minutes and in that case the problem is not especially acute however when they started to tackle Mass settings, spinning polyphony over an extended period then lack of dynamic colouring became a problem. We have no idea how medieval musicians approached dynamics and many will argue that the general thinning and thickening of texture, the rise and fall of lines will create dynamics naturally. I have remained unconvinced.
I needed to listen again to a continental group and get away from the Oxbridge sound that GV represented. I didn’t have far to look. I chose a Mass by de la Rue’s contemporary Josquin, his Missa Gaudeamus performed by A Sei Voce. This was recorded in 1997 (Auvidis E8612). They use a slightly larger group, but one to a part for certain sections and children on the top part, but that’s another story. I only had to go as far as the opening Kyrie to hear a superb dynamic contrast between the Kyrie and the Christe which was hushed and mysterious. Throughout their performance dynamic contrast serving to highlight structure and text is prevalent. This makes their performance not only more musically interesting but also spiritually more concentrated. Dynamic contrasts like this might be considered to be Romantic but who is to say that to a certain extent this is not what Josquin and de la Rue expected to happen.
As I listened to de la Rue’s motet, the canonic six-part Pater de celis Deus, recorded here by GV, I realized how incredibly uninteresting, inexpressive and even dull the performance was. I have felt the same about GV’s recording of the anonymous Missa Caput (Hyperion CDA66857). Another reason I started to feel this was because of the unrelenting tempo. The Missa de Feria is an extremely professional piece of work. It is meant as a workaday or as lay-clerks often call these things ‘washday’ service but if it has anything at all profound to say then through this performance or the music itself it has sadly eluded me. One other reason may be, and setting aside for one minute the scholarly need for solid evidence, is that surely there needs to be tempo variety of some sort. A Sei Voce as well as other (often continental) groups attend to this, quite naturally depending on the exigencies of the text, not in an excessive (Romantic) sense but by using their musical sensibilities both as performers and as potential listeners.
In his brilliantly argued book ‘The Modern Invention of Medieval Music’ (Cambridge University Press, 2002) Daniel Leech-Wilkinson devotes over twenty pages to discussion of GV’s CDs sometimes in some detail. Even so, he never once mentions this de La Rue disc and the reason, I believe, is that it is not one of their most interesting or, for that matter, most controversial discs. In addition Pierre de La Rue himself is something of an outsider never having been taken up by a writer or group. He is less impressive, less innovative, less tightly ordered than say Josquin or Brumel. His music is even more imitative than that of his contemporaries and seems to be a little too clever. One wonders why Page decided to record him.
Let’s look at the always informative and useful booklet notes. He writes that the composer “is still very little known” and very prolific having written “twenty-nine masses ... six Magnificats, fourteen motets” and much more. He adds later that the group, being unfamiliar with the style, found “themselves initially disorientated”. I have a feeling that he is being more honest here than he realized.
Having said all of that - and I’m sorry not to be entirely helpful - the four-voiced Missa Sancta Dei genetrix comes off well. I can’t decide if it’s because the singers are more on top of de la Rue’s language or whether, and this seems more likely, it is a much better piece. It is succinct and based on a memorable head motif. Page describes it as “radiant”. I’m not sure, having known this CD now for a dozen years, if I quite feel that myself. However, the expressive nature of the lines, especially the bass part, enables GV to bounce the ideas off each other like chamber music. Page describes the effect as “mutual dependency and co-operation”.
An especially charming feature of the disc is the sequence of three motets transcribed in the style of Phalèse the Louvainese music publisher and known to de la Rue. The transcriber, Christopher Wilson, plays them with Shirley Rumsey. They are mostly unadorned and reflect “the Flemish or north European tradition of lute playing in the lifetime of the composer.”
Incredibly uninteresting, inexpressive and even dull.