Missa Gotica is a recreation of an anonymous polyphonic
mass from the fourteenth century - the time when the Papacy
was relocated to Avignon. A major motive for this recording
by the highly respected, and uncompromising, Ensemble Organum
(six accomplished singers - including director Marcel Pérès)
is to demonstrate the significant changes in style of such
music at a time of equally significant developments in the
Despite the calamitous nature of the fourteenth century (the
Black Death, the Schism and European-wide devastation, war
and poverty), its musicians, artists, writers and indeed its
clerics were confident and proud of their new - and still emerging
- abilities. In musical composition, for example, new understanding
of arithmetic enabled more precise and expressive structures
to be produced. These fitted the greater enthusiasm for observation
and what we would now call 'scientific' advances; these enabled
stronger and more spectacular architectural construction, for
example. The tremendous belief of such makers in their world
and in their powers to represent and reflect it is mirrored
in the immense energy of the music on this CD.
Admittedly, the style of Ensemble Organum has always been about
as different from such ensembles as The Tallis Scholars or
The Sixteen, say, as you can get. Initially, you think it's
a roughness and unpolished style. On more careful listening,
you accept that the articulation of text and sound may be superficially
'raw'. But it's as careful and thoughtful, as practised and
sophisticated as you can get without being staid or over-produced.
In other words, perhaps, Ensemble Organum's performance is
very genuine. We shall never know for sure how the music of
that age sounded.
Self-consciously coarse Ensemble Organum's delivery is not.
But that their voices and their relationship with such distant
music are actively stripped of gentility and restraint is a
potent virtue of what Pérès believes is an appropriate
way to interpret it. And this sound - here, as with their other
recordings - paradoxically brings the music to life in ways
that a more apparently 'poised' style never could.
This composite Mass is also evidence of at least one important
technical development, of which its contemporary performers
were both aware and proud: the commonly-accepted notation of
note length. The Ars subtilior was an expression of
the exhilaration which composers and performers clearly felt:
this developing system allowed music to be 'frozen' in time,
and hence contemplated independently from its (otherwise unrecordable)
performance. Think, perhaps, of the way in which piano rolls,
then tape, afforded twentieth century musicians and listeners
the same sense of capturing nuance - but at a much more basic
level: the very sense that music existed as an entity was new
and exiting. These new (notational) techniques played an important
part in the move towards known and nameable composers emerging
in the course of the fourteenth century. Pérès
and his singers capture this excitement splendidly; they do
so, too, with a perfect balance which tempers the 'rush' of
a determined recreation with their unparalleled expertise.
Indeed, there isn't a note on this spectacularly-executed CD
which isn't shot through with this enthusiasm and the sense
that, Now anything is possible. And in terms of the development
of polyphony, indeed it was. Yet the way the singers phrase
the music demonstrates that confessional commitment - not specious
spectacle - still dictated the tone.
Pérès has chosen for this CD to situate the changes
in the context of the parallel shifts in liturgical practice
introduced at the time of Avignon by the Franciscans. The Old
Roman chant (explored with zest elsewhere by Ensemble Organum
and Pérès of course) on which earlier polyphony
had begun to be based was quite quickly eclipsed. The break
with Antiquity - at least in this aspect of music-making -
was lost for good. Indeed, writers from the sixteenth century
coined the term Gothic (one 't' in this title) to emphasise
what they saw as a desertion from a superior aesthetic.
The reconstruction on this highly desirable CD comes from French
manuscripts: it was common at the time for a variety of such
sources to be used in the realisation of a single Ordinary
mass. That's what we have here; it's interspersed with Gregorian
chant sung in the French manner. Such a blend dramatically
emphasises the intricacies and subtleties of the text. It almost
goes without saying that every syllable of the Ensemble's diction
is clear and loaded with an expressiveness rarely found to
quite this extent.
Above all, it's the energy of the singers and the singing
that will stay with you - as well as the music's amazing beauty,
which is borne of a nevertheless temperate match between due
service to the objects(s) of the fourteenth century musicians'
belief and their wish to reveal them by creations of great
The booklet has the text of the work(s) in Latin, Modern French
and English; there is also a highly informative essay in Pérès
authoritative and infectiously enthusiastic style. The acoustic
(modestly resonant) and production standards exceed expectations.
ZigZag Territoires is to be congratulated for this important
and stimulating contribution to the repertoire and its performance