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Polyphonic Vespers for St. Michael's and St. Martin's Days
Vespers for St. Michael's Day [13:01]
Mass for St. Martin's Day [08:33]
Vespers for St. Martin's Day [25:31]
Schola Hungarica/Janka Szendrei, László Dobszay
rec. June 2006, Our Lady Chapel, Archabbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

In the beginning of the 20th century Pope Pius X (1903-1914) took the initiative to reform the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted to put an end to the decline of church music which was much complained about in the 19th century. The result of his reforms was a regimentation of the repertoire and of the way it was performed. This put to an end a long history of richness and variety in liturgical music and its performance practice. In particular during the renaissance many regions in Europe had their own repertoire and their own liturgical habits. For more than twenty years the Schola Hungarica has explored the historical sources of religious, and in particular liturgical, music of what is now known as Hungary and of the regions connected to it. This new recording is the latest addition to an impressive list of recordings of such music.

This disc brings together liturgical music, both plainchant and polyphony, for the feasts of St Michael and St Martin. The polyphony comes from a manuscript which a widow called Anna Hannsen Schuman donated to the collegiate chapter of Pozsony in 1571. At that time Pozsony was the most important city of Hungary not under Turkish domination; today it is Slovakia's capital Bratislava. This manuscript contains no less than 239 polyphonic works, mostly written for the evening office of Vespers. The annotations in the manuscript show that it has actually been used.

The polyphony, mostly anonymous, evinces variety in complexity as some settings are rather simple where others are more elaborate. There are pieces which contain some imitation, but the imitation techniques we know from, for instance, the Franco-Flemish school are absent here.

The Vespers begin with the versicle and response 'Deus in adjutorium', followed by five Psalms, each preceded by an antiphon which is repeated after the Psalm. Then a capitulum - a reading from the Bible - follows, after which a responsorium and a hymn are sung. This is followed by the Magnificat, again preceded and followed by an antiphon. The service ends with prayers and the 'Benedicamus Domino'. In this recording the music from the abovementioned manuscript is sung in a liturgical setting. The disc opens with the Vespers for St Michael's Day (29 September) and closes with the Vespers for St Martin's Day (10 November). In between four sections of the Mass for St Martin's Day are sung. Considering the short playing time of this disc one will immediately understand that these liturgical events are not recorded complete. The opening versicle and response have been omitted, only the first line of the antiphons before the Psalms are sung, and only a couple of lines from the Psalms are performed. As a result one certainly gets an impression of the way the music in the manuscript was used, but I find this practice of cutting most of the music rather unsatisfactory. It would have been preferable if the performers had focused on one of the feasts and then performed its Vespers - and if possible also the Mass - complete.

Apart from that there can't be enough praise for an undertaking like this. Our picture of the 16th century is strongly determined by the rich polyphony of the great masters of the time. We don't always realise that this repertoire was only performed in the largest and richest churches and convents and in royal or aristocratic chapels. Elsewhere the liturgy mainly consisted of plainchant - often originating from the region where a church or convent was situated - and a little bit of (mostly simple) polyphony. Recordings like this help to broaden our picture of that era, and are therefore highly valuable.

In addition the Schola Hungarica is a splendid ensemble which easily outstrips any other ensemble of this kind. It has a great quality of naturalness, partly due to the use of young voices, both boys and girls (although I think most are girls) some of whom also sing short solos and do that quite well. The ensemble wouldn't be my first choice to sing elaborate polyphonic masses and motets by - say - Josquin or Lassus, but it is excellently suited to liturgical music like this. One gets the impression that this is the way this music could have been sung in the late 16th century.

Anyone interested in liturgical music and curious to expand his horizons in that regard should look for this disc, as well as previous recordings by this ensemble.

Johan van Veen


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