Antoine BRUMEL
Missa pro defunctis [28:57]
Libera me, Domine (plainsong) [4:22]
Thomas CRECQUILLON (c.1505-57)
Lamentationes Jeremiæ [13:33]
Jacobus CLEMENS NON PAPA (c.1510-c.1555)
Tristitia obsedit me - Infelix ego [8:52]
Josquin DESPREZ (c.1450-1521) [attrib.]
Absalon fili mi [3:53]
In paradisum (plainsong) [1:15]
Jackson HILL (b.1942)
Ma fin est mon commencement [5:54]
New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams (counter-tenor), Geoffrey Silver (tenor), Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone), Craig Phillips (bass))
rec. October 2011, Länna Church, Sweden
BIS BIS-SACD-1949 [67:58]
Taking on the legacy of other early music orientated but eminently flexible vocal groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble, the four members of New York Polyphony bring to their première BIS programme a sequence of works which explore themes of grief, loss and mortality. This review is pre-empted by Brian Wilson’s May Download Roundup #1, which sums up the contents of this disc admirably. The SACD surround element is something you will almost invariably sacrifice with downloads, so I can add that the sound quality with the physical disc adds an extra layer of spatial definition to an already very fine stereo recorded mix. Länna Church is not a vast sounding acoustic, but suits the unified voices of New York Polyphony very well indeed. Their sound is warmer than the Hilliard Ensemble, with the countertenor colouration far less of a defining factor in the overall impression. In fact, the rich bass lines from Craig Phillips are if anything a far more significant factor in this case, with the ear drawn towards juicy lines which support the harmonies and have their own expressive role to play in the counterpoint.
Most of the works included in this programme were composed by masters of the Franco-Flemish school of polyphony from the first half of the 16th century. Jackson Hill’s contemporary contribution is a clear exception, and the two examples of plainsong go back further in time, but the artistic conception of the whole can be considered a great success. Listening ‘blind’ it is true that the inexpert ear will probably witness a series of tracks which blend each to the other without too many defining stylistic features, but with a little attentiveness one can feel the greater intensity and dissonant density of Thomas Crecquillon’s Lamentationes Jeremiæ against the more direct but no less subtle harmonic language of Antoine Brumel’s substantial and magnificent Missa pro defunctis. Juicy clashes occur as well in Clemens Non Papa’s Tristitia obsedit me, ornamental vibrato used by the voices which adds spice to the sustained notes, allowing lines to emerge and recede without too much resorting to dynamic contrast alone. One of the most lyrically expressive pieces is that by Josquin Desprez, or might it have been Pierre de la Rue’s Absolon fili mi, the text of each section of which deals with the mourning of a father for their son.
With such a compact vocal ensemble there is no room for inaccuracy, and the tightness of the ensemble is evidenced by the short moments of plainsong, which show absolute accuracy of intonation and not a consonant out of place. This is very much a ‘single instrument’. The colour matching of the voices indeed makes one almost convinced it is one very rich voice one is hearing in the plainsong, and the impression throughout is of an ensemble which could be considerable larger. The final work by Jackson Hill works amongst the earlier pieces for these reasons, as well as due to its sympathetically conceived layering of lines and relative melodic restraint. Ma fin est mon commencement is, despite everything, something of a lonely orphan in this context, and I would seriously have considered putting at least one other similarly proportioned contemporary work elsewhere - probably as an opener - to balance things.
This is a beautifully conceived, performed and produced release, and I heartily recommend it to all comers. All texts are printed in the booklet, which has compact but useful notes by Ralph Buxton in English, German and French. Brian Wilson suggested that “surely, a better cover shot” might have been found. I tend to disagree, though my initial response was “that must have been one heck of an after-party…” We’re given a website for the source of the picture but some information in the booklet might have been useful, though I understand if the exact locations are meant to be kept secret. It is apparently an abandoned mid-19th century hospital in Belgium, of which the chapel is one of the few surviving relics. Just beyond that door is a space which appears still to be in use. Beauty in decay, loss and abandonment: highly appropriate given the content of the programme.
Dominy Clements
Thoughtful and beautifully performed.