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CD: Crotchet

Missa Gotica (anon. 14th cent.)
Kyrie (Toulouse) [8:39]
Gloria (Barcelona - Apt) [9:30]
Alleluia: Veni Sanctus Spiritus (plain chant) [6:11]
Credo (Barcelona - Apt) [9:05]
Preface [2:47]
Sanctus (Toulouse) [3:51]
Offertoire (plain chant) [3:49]
Agnus Dei (Toulouse) [2:25]
Introit: Spiritus Domini (plain chant) [2:57]
Ite missa est (Toulouse) [2:16]
Ensemble Organum (Jean Christophe Candau (superius); Gianni di Gennaro (superius); Jean Etienne Langianini (contra tenor); Luc Terrieux (contra tenor); Antoine Sicot (tenor); Marcel Pérès (tenor, director))
rec. January 2009, Eglise de Payerne, Switzerland. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

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 liturgy.

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 loveliness.

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 practice. 

Mark Sealey



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