RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa (1510/1515-1555/6)
Sacred Music: 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 CDA 67848 [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.
Jacobus Clemens can be considered up there with the very best.