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OCKEGHEM - Recommended Recordings

(Revised and abridged from review article in The Organ)
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Until his quincentenary death year, Johannes Ockeghem's name was better known than his music, except to specialists. Esteemed as pre-eminent in his own time, subsequently he was dismissed unheard until fairly recently as a dry contrapuntist, a clever puzzler. Exposure to his masses in excellent performances and new recordings has proved revelatory. The 1997 Ockeghem celebration is likely to prove far more significant than those the same year for Brahms and Schubert, who will remain popular as ever anyway.

Missa prolationum is famous for its astonishing complexity of pitched and rhythmic canonic devices, with all four 15th century time signatures (prolations) used in a double canon (anticipating Boulez's total serialism?). Abandoning the fruitless attempt to hear all of this analytically, the music proves immensely enjoyable, indeed transparent, when encountered in well prepared performance. The interest is held by changing vocal textures with varied combinations, often cleansing the palate by reducing from four to two strands. It is art which conceals art and speaks easily to our taste, familiarity breeding admiration and affection.

Edward Wickham, musicologist and bass singer, celebrated the quincentenary by participating in a learned and fascinating scholarly disputation about the Missa pro defunctis (the earliest polyphonic Requiem to survive) at King's College in London, followed by a rare opportunity to hear his accomplished team, The Clerks' Group, make light of its difficulties and enchant a large audience with its sheer beauty and unpredictable fantasy. The mass De plus en plus is based upon a Binchois chanson prominent as a cantus firmus in the full four voice sections, with virtuoso passages in between for reduced voices. It can be savoured in an excellent CD by the always reliable Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips, coupled with Ockeghem's Missa Au travail suis, gentle and less overtly demonstrative, each presented with its related chanson [Gimell 454 935-2]. A late arrival for the Ockeghem quincentenary was an excellent Deutsche Grammophon CD of the Missa de plus en plus coupled with a generous selection of secular chansons with fascinating texts, as is so often the case for 15th century music. These use repeating forms, with highly individual cultivation of endless musical lines [DG Archiv 453 419-2 *****]. The extraordinary triple canon Prenez sur moi has the voices each upon different pitches. The four singers of the Orlando Consort are fully competitive, and the presentation is comprehensive, with impeccable recorded sound. Only scholars steeped in the period are in any position to make authoritative comparisons in this rewarding field.

However, the most enduring quincentenary memorial to Ockeghem, revered above all others in his own time, will undoubtedly be the adventurous and universally praised four CDs by The Clerks' Group [ASV Gaudeamus GAU 139, 143, 153 and 168] which span the main output of this composer, despite there being only a limited number of surviving works. These are recorded impeccably, capturing the passion and clarity of the Clerks' Group performances and presented with substantial informative essays and elegant illustrations from the period. For a single CD recommendation, I would suggest [ASV GAU 168 * * * * *], which includes the five part Missa fors seulement from Ockeghem's last decade together with the astonishing Requiem.

P. Grahame Woolf

see also later review OCKEGHEM Masses L'Homme Armé; Sine nomine a3
The Clerks' Group/Edward Wickham
ASV Gaudeamus GAU 204 57'37" [PW]


P. Grahame Woolf

Reviews from previous months

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