I must confess that the idea of listening to an
hour of ‘wee boys’ in sailor suits singing does not really appeal
to me. Do not get me wrong. I love the sound of a typical Anglican
Church Choir. My idea of heaven is either King’s College Cambridge
or the Westminster Cathedral Choir. But somehow the Vienna Boy’s
Choir does not grab my attention. It is not that they are not
superb: they are. It is just that, for me, boys’ voices on their
own are like bagpipes – something to be listened to in very
small doses. Yet this CD is essential for all lovers of 16th
Century music for one key reason. As far as I am aware it is
the only available recording of the complete Missa
ad Imitationem Pater Noster by Jacobus Gallus. And not only
that it has men’s voices in it too!
Jacobus Gallus was better known in his day as
Handl. For the record he was born Jacob Petelin in Ribnica in
Slovenia in 1550. He received his musical education
at a Cistercian Monastery before working at a variety of monastic
sinecures of the Austria Monarchy. Later he was a court chapel
musician in Vienna. One of his last posts was that of
Cantor at St Johann’s Prague, dying in that city in 1591. He is
somewhat vaguely remembered for sixteen masses and a variety
of motets for church use. His most ‘famous’ work is the Opus
Musicum, 1577 which is a huge collection of motets covering
the entire liturgical year. Curiously, his motet (not recorded
here) for four voices, Ecce quomodo moritur Justus, was borrowed
by another Handel! It tuned up in his Funeral Anthems (London 1737)!
The present Missa
Ad Imitationem Pater Noster was composed for eight voices
and sets the usual six parts from the Ordinary. Certainly, as
a mass setting it is up there with much that
was being composed at this time. There is much about this work
that seems transitional. It is much more ‘complex’ than the
music of Palestrina and Victoria: there is a kind belated nod
to Josquin Desprez and the other masters from Flanders. Yet we are also aware of a looking forward to
Monteverdi. It is technically a ‘parody’ mass, borrowing on
the liturgical setting of the Lord’s Prayer to provide the material
for the entire work.
The two motets, Puer Concinte and Repleti Sunt
are taken for the Opus
Musicam and are for four and eight a
capella voices respectively. These works which sound as
if they ought to be rather good are somewhat spoilt by the recording.
They are a bit screechy! I would love to hear them sung by the
Tallis Scholars or the Oxford Camerata.
The motet by Palestrina is Hodie Christus Natus Est. Although it is quite obviously well sung
it would not be my first choice. The Schola Cantorum or Westminster
Cathedral recording would be my preference. Somehow the lack
of men’s voices just seems to make it less stunning, dramatic
and immediate than it should be.
With the two motets by Victoria we have the same situation as the
Gallus. A brief look at the Arkiv CD catalogue on the internet
shows that neither of these two works is available in any other
recording. So we should be grateful to ‘Arts Archives’ for making
these available to us. Both Una Ora and O Regem Coeli are perfect examples of this great Spanish composer’s
The short work for four voices by Giovanni Nascus
is in the same tradition as Palestrina. In fact I doubt that
anyone would deny it was by the master on an ‘innocent ear’
hearing. This is certainly one of the best things on this CD.
I find the ‘Lamentation’ style of choral music from the period
very moving and this choir is well able to express the tragedy
of the words. Little is known about the composer except that
he died in 1561 aged fifty one.
The last of the liturgical pieces is the Sanctus, Hosanna and Benedictus from Jacobus
de Kerle’s Missa Regina
Coeli. This extract is extremely beautiful. I would certainly
love to hear the rest of the work. Yet I cannot find reference
to any full recording on the ‘net’ so that will have to wait.
De Kerle was a Dutch composer who worked mainly in Bavaria. He was able to combine the Dutch
style of Josquin’s successors with the clarity of Palestrina.
He died in Prague in 1591.
The last work on this CD is Benjamin Britten’s
Ceremony of Carols. And of course the Vienna
Boys' Choir are on firm ground here. The work was actually written
for treble voices and harp. So I cannot complain about the lack
of ‘deeper resonances- although I understand it was
originally conceived for women’s voices. The Ceremony
was actually written at sea aboard the ‘MS Axel Johnson’ when
Britten was returning to Liverpool from New York in 1942. It is not really a Christmas Piece, although
it opens and closes with the Antiphon from Vespers for the ‘Feast
of the Nativity.’ As with many performances the Deo
Gratias is perhaps the most impressive number. However I
must make special mention of Elisabeth Bayer’s contribution
on the obbligato harp part.
The Vienna’s Boys Choir has a stunning history.
Many ‘big’ names were associated with this group as either choristers
or composers. We can name Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and
Bruckner for starters.
Quality of sound seems to be lacking in this recording.
Even though the CD packaging states that 24 bit re-mastering
has taken place, it does not seem to have done much for the
32 year old original masters.
One last niggle - I
do wish that they had included the words in the CD insert.
So on the whole this is an interesting CD. The
more popular works are available in later, and in my opinion
preferable, recordings. However, the beauty of this CD is the
four or five works that are ‘hard to find.’ For this reason
I recommend this disc to all those interested in 16th
century church music. Those who love the Vienna Boys Choir for
their own sake will want to add this to their collection as
a matter of course.