Jacob OBRECHT (1450-1505)

Missa Sancto Donatiano
Audio CD with Plainsongs and organ improvisations [63:13]
DVD of Mass reconstruction and documentary [118:00]
Capella Pratensis/Stratton Bull, Peter Van Heyghen
Polyphony and plainsong – rec. Eglise St.Apollinaire, Belgium, 22-24 November 2006
Organ Improvisations – rec. St.Andrewskerk, Hattem, Holland, 26 May 2006
Filmed in the Sint Gilliskerk, Bruges, 11-12 June 2007
Amazingly and uniquely we know the exact date and venue for the first performance of this mass: 14 October 1487 at 7pm in the church of Sint Jacobskerk in Bruges. We know this because the mass was a commission for that day from the wealthy widow of a Bruges fur merchant who had died in exile four years earlier. Her name was Adriene de Vos and her later husband was Donnas de Vos. They had also commissioned an altarpiece for the church. The city of Bruges’ patron saint has the same name: Donatian or Donatiano, who was Bishop of Rheims in the 4th Century. His relics remain in Bruges.
The style of the mass is unusual for Obrecht and it seems that the work may be homage to Ockeghem. For the Hosanna section of the Sanctus, at the moment when the host is raised, Obrecht quotes a complete chunk of Ockeghem’s ‘Missa Ecce Ancilla’ (The handmaid of the Lord). Perhaps that is how Adriene then saw herself. The entire work is smooth, gentle - the Gloria opens with a meditative section for just two voices - and suitably elegiac. Obrecht’s usual style is often nervous and busy but here he is quite restrained. Rob C. Wegman in his brilliant book on Obrecht, ‘Born for the Muses’ (Oxford, 1994) comments on page 170 “... what remains is a mass which is so uncharacteristic of Obrecht that one would scarcely have suspected his authorship without the manuscript attribution.” Later he writes: “His guiding principles seem to be restraint and good behaviour”. It is a multiple-cantus-firmus mass and the audio CD has what it calls ‘bonus tracks’ of the four plainchants and the popular tune used by the composer. Some like ‘O sanctissime presul’ are suitable – the matins response for the feast of St. Donatiano. Another is ‘O Clavis David’ for Advent and another, a secular song ‘Gefft den armen gefangen (Give alms unto the poor)’. These texts are given in the booklet and translated as they appear in the mass setting. The reasoning behind these chants is given in the accompanying DVD.
This second disc is, quite unusually, a reconstruction of the mass on DVD, shot in the Gilleskirk which, on my walking tour of Bruges last year (2008), I seem somehow to have missed. The film demonstrates that the seven male singers stand around and sing from the large wooden music-stand on which the grand choir-book rests. The polyphony is directly by one, the plainchant by another, both men at the front. The three clergy, who also intone the lectios (biblical readings) and other sections of the mass are situated a little distance away in a side chapel. They stand in front of a reredos of the deposition of Christ by one of those, probably anonymous, Flemish primitivist painters - part of the picture is reproduced in the booklet. The scene is very like that depicted in a familiar miniature of Johannes Ockeghem leading the performance of one of his masses. What is impressive about Capella Pratensis is that none of them, despite the candle-light, seem to need to wear spectacles as Ockeghem does. It was this fact that made me suspect that they might be miming but I eventually decided that I was probably wrong; or perhaps they wear contacts!
The Sint Jacobkerke was not chosen for the recording as it is now rather Baroque and vast. The DVD was shot in the Sint Gilliskerk but the organ was recorded elsewhere – in Hattem.
The sound reproduction, so often the bane of the DVD, is really very natural and pleasing apart from three or four moments of distortion. The ‘service’ includes a few sections not on the audio disc like the Lectios. The texts are not offered in the otherwise very thorough accompanying booklet. The audio disc has the melodies of the cantus firmus as mentioned above. The donor is occasionally glimpsed following the service in breviary or book of hours. The camera sometimes shows us the plainchant in the manuscript whilst it is sung but never the polyphony which is rather a pity. The mass is broken up with organ improvisations by Wim Diepenhorst which stylistically sound perfectly consistent with the later 15th century.
This disc also comes with a fascinating documentary showing some lovely footage of Bruges. It consists of a conversation between Professor Jennifer Boxam who works at Williams College, Massachusetts and Stratton Bull, Artistic director of Capella Pratensis. They discuss the background to the mass and give us a guided tour of the Jacobskerk including the (ruinous) chapel which was the Vos Chantry Chapel. We also see the original manuscript. There is a brief biography of Obrecht’s troubled life. Later we hear the singers in rehearsal using a reproduction manuscript and talking about the way they work with it.
With this album I begin to feel that Obrecht is receiving the respect he so deserves. I am now even more convinced of his towering genius a view also shared by Rob Wegman.
I would like to end by pointing you in the direction of some other Obrecht mass recordings which might be of further interest and which I especially admire:-
Missa Maria Zart –Tallis Scholars (Gimell 32)
Missa Caput –Oxford Camerata (Naxos 8.553210)
Missa Sub Tuum Praesidium confugimus – Clerkes Group (ASV Gaudeamus 341)
Missa Malheur me bat – Clerkes Group (ASV Gaudeamus 171)
This is a fine project, superbly carried out, beautifully presented and wonderfully performed with a perfect blend of understanding and unanimity. In addition we are offered a rare insight into composer, place and performers with a beautifully shot and presented DVD. I advise you to buy it instantly. Outstanding.

Gary Higginson
I advise you to buy it instantly. Outstanding. ... see Full Review