Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa
Missa Pro Defunctis [20.38]
Tristitia et anxietas [10.02]
Vae tibi Babylon et Syria [4.59]
Erravi sicut ovis a 5 [7.29]
De profundis [9.21]
Vox in Rama [4.16]
Peccantem me quotidie [8.41]
Heu mihi, Domine [7.23]
Brabant Ensemble (Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Alison Coldstream (soprano);
Emma Ashby, Sarah Coatsworth, Claire Eadington, Fiona Rogers (alto);
Alastair Carey, Andrew McAnerney (tenor); Paul Charrier, Jon Stainsby,
David Stuart (bass))/Stephen Rice
rec. 16-18 March 2010, Merton College, Oxford
HYPERION CDA67848 [72.52]
I have waxed lyrical before about the wonderful Brabant Ensemble
when reviewing their discs of Dominique Phinot (CDA67696)
and Morales (CDA67694).
This disc has not disappointed me.
I am not going to go into all that gobbledygook about why Clemens
has such a silly name or give you much in the way of biography.
I simply want to express how and why this music and these performances
have affected me so much emotionally.
Clemens has not been often recorded and when he has been the
CDs have not made much impression. The possible exception is
that by The Tallis Scholars (Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis
on Gimell 013). As Stephen Rice comments in his excellent and
extensive booklet notes, no one can be quite sure why . The
counterpoint to quote him has “points woven together …
which seem more to support the melodic line … designed
to emphasize the melodic gesture rather than to subsume it.”
It is the glorious melody which one notices first. Then come
the subtle and long lines and the sequential writing is almost
as grand as on an architectural level. Yet there is an austerity
too as exemplified most certainly by the Missa Pro defunctis
which is the longest work here. It’s not one you might
think would attract a large number of listeners to Clemens’
style, but it did me. As the motets also sucked me in I had
nowhere to hide.
OK I was listening to this penitential music during Holy Week,
sometimes in the car sometimes quietly at night. OK we were
driving about Belgium and Holland (Clemens’ homeland)
seeing the many and imposing churches, which were often austerely
clad and grimly silent, suitable for the season. In Ghent we
saw Nicholas and St.Bavo, also in Tournai, Ocquier and others
but there was more to admiring this disc than just the inspiring
atmosphere of our travels.
Stephen Rice makes decisions early on about what he thinks the
music is saying and how he sees it developing. He works at it,
obviously pointing the climaxes and the subtle word-painting
and always working with aim and direction. He is not content
simply to wallow in the wonderful melodic lines and rich harmonies.
There are several good examples. In Vae tibi Babylon et Syria
he spots the long extended development of one line which exhorts
the people to “wrap yourselves in sackcloth”. Further
on he draws attention to the subdued and plangent “and
weep for your children”. By realizing what the composer
is doing he sets his singers on course to bring out the fullest
expression as the music demands. He also deduces a later “reduction
of tension” and allows the dynamics and passion to be
gradually spent in a final passage, which “creates a sense
of exhausted despair”. In Tristitia et anxietas
he highlights the words ‘vae mihi’ (Woe unto me)
as it stands apart with block chords high in the choir’s
range and allows the “waterfall” climax of its final
bars to contrast strongly with its previous homophonic texture.
Rice also talks of Clemens’ use of sonority; that is the
use of textures which have no or little use in regard to the
text. You hear this in the De profundis setting with
its gentle and overlapping syncopations and melodies.
Clemens lived, it is said, a somewhat debauched life; at least
at times. His biography is probably in his music and this may
well have helped him to express his sorrow and regret in a strongly
confessional way in these texts. In Peccantem me quotidie
(‘Sinning every day and not repenting, the fear of death
troubles me’) Clemens focuses on, to quote Rice again
“text expressive manoeuvres” especially in the section
‘For in hell’ with its passionate descending sequence.
Rice allows the voices to drain out onto the next line, “there
is no redemption”. Also what about the final motet Heu
mihi, Domine (‘Alas for I have sinned greatly in my
life’) with its constant and seemingly endless repetitions
of ‘Quid faciam miser’ - What shall I do, miserable?
This is truly astonishing stuff.
The photograph of the choir shows eleven voices but twelve are
listed. Often it is just two to a part, but being closely recorded
and with synchronized breathing there is little sense of strained
effort. The voice quality right across whichever combination
Rice chooses to use is consistent. In addition Merton College
is about the most perfect acoustic in which to make any recording
of choral music.
I took my portable player into the Romanesque church at Bonneville
a short way south of Brussels. With the sun effortlessly cascading
through the shimmering coloured glass, I listened to the Missa
Pro defunctis. Its affecting simplicity so suited the architecture
that I listened with tears in my eyes. The usual seven movements
included as a Tractus ‘Absolve, Domine’. It’s
often homophonic and emphasises the melodic line. This is restricted
in range and never allows itself to be let loose as in the motets,
I really did begin to feel that Jacobus Clemens is as Rice states
right at the start of his notes “one of the most remarkable
composers of the sixteenth century”. There can be little
doubt that he can be considered up there with the very best.