O Magnum Mysterium
Guillaume DUFAY (1400-1474)
Missa ‘Ecce ancilla Domini’ (1463) for 4 voices [33:37]
Johannes OCKEGHEM (1420-1495)
Missa pro defunctis for 2-4 voices [27:48], Missa polationum for 4 voices [36:00]
Josquin DESPREZ (1440-1521)
Missa ‘Da pacem’ for 2 to 4 voices [34:09]
Heinrich FINCK (1445-1527)
Sanctus from Missa sex vocum (1512) [7:15]
Johannes OCKEGHEM (1420-1495)
Missa cuiusvis toni for 4 voices [24:41]
Josquin DESPREZ (1440-1521)
Missa super ‘Malheur me bat’ for 4 to 6 voices [47:33]
Nicolas GOMBERT (d.c.1556)
Musae Jovis ter maximi [5:06]
Antoine BRUMEL (1460-1520)
Missa ‘Et ecce terrae motus’ for 12 voces [46:39]
Heinrich ISAAC (1450-1517)
Missa paschalis for 6 voices [24:54]
Schola Cantorum Sttutgart/Clytus Gottwald
rec. 1971-88, Villa Berg, Stuttgart
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94367 [4 CDs: 61:38 + 70:22 + 73:56 + 77:06]
This four-disc set celebrates Flemish vocal polyphony of the renaissance era. Recorded at various times in the 1970s and 1980s by the Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, this is a fascinating collection in a well presented box-set, with the liner-notes provided on CD ROM. Practical tip: if you are listening to the CDs through a computer, load the CD-ROM first so that you can access the sleeve notes while listening.
Dufay’s Ecce ancilla Domini begins the collection. The purity of the harmony, combined with the clear intonation of this vocal ensemble, is immediately striking. The music itself is engaging on many levels, and it has always impressed me how early vocal polyphony can maintain a sense of freshness and relevance 650 years after it was composed. Ockeghem’s Missa pro defunctis has some wonderfully expressive moments and the range in texture between the sections for different numbers of voices is effective. This work is thought to be the earliest surviving polyphonic Requiem mass - although it is possible that Dufay made an earlier setting. Ockeghem was respected as the leading composer of his time, although only a relatively small number of works are confirmed as being his, including just 15 mass settings.
Overall, this is a good recording with an enjoyable expressive range, excellent intonation and a good sense of ensemble. A few things, however, mar it for me, many of which may in fact be directly related to the time the recording was made. One is the blend of voices, which lacks the sense of unity that one has become accustomed to in recordings of music from this era. I am unconvinced by the use of vibrato, not from the point of view of a purist as such, but more because, for me, it seems to get in the way of the harmonic clarity. This is clearly a matter of personal taste, and it is obvious that this is an element of interpretation which has been carefully considered by the performers, since on the whole, the vibrato is light and in keeping with the dynamic range of the music. The only other small gripe is that the sound of the recording is slightly bass-heavy. I felt that a brighter sound and more acoustic space between the parts might have added an extra sheen.
Disc 2, recorded in 1973 has a more spacious sound, and the canons in the opening Kyrie of Ockeghem’s Missa prolationum are well balanced and clear. This mass is undoubtedly a polyphonic masterpiece which is full of magical moments and demonstrates the best of the era. Josquin Desprez’s Missa Da pacem is similarly well constructed, with some warm harmonies and compositional innovations, especially in terms of the use of cantus firmus. Although the authorship of this work has been called into question, Clytus Gottwald makes a good case for it to have been written by Desprez in the extensive booklet notes. The music is performed well. I especially enjoyed the expressive and committed rendition of the Credo, and the peaceful calm of the Agnus Dei.
Disc 3 was recorded later, between 1981 and 1988, and the vocal sound seems more evenly balanced. Heinrich Finck’s Sanctus is a fine seven minute work, taken from the Mass for Six Voices. This recording, although in the same resonant acoustic as the earlier discs, has better blending in the voices and the individual lines are also more clearly audible. More offerings from Ockeghem and Desprez follow. The Missa cuiusvis toni by Ockeghem has a beautifully peaceful Kyrie, which sets the atmosphere for the rest of the work. The resonance which develops in the Benedictus is highly engaging, and there are some moments of wonderful harmony which reveal the extent of Ockeghem’s talent. The singing is sensitive, with some well shaped phrases and good attention to expressive detail. The Josquin Desprez work on this disc is Missa super ‘Malheur me bat’, taking its basis from a polyphonic song which was popular at the time. Throughout the work, he demonstrates skilful composition technique, with dazzling polyphony and imaginative harmony.
The final disc dates from 1971 and 1984, and includes music by Gombert, Isaac and Brumel. Nicolas Gombert is thought to have studied with Josquin Desprez in the latter part of Josquin’s life, and his 6-part motet Musae Jovis ter maximi was written to commemorate Josquin’s death. Gombert began his career as a singer and composer, and achieved much success, becoming one of the best known composers in the time between Josquin and Palestrina. Musae Jovis uses a cantus firmus which had been used by Josquin himself and is an enjoyable tribute from student to teacher.
Antoine Brumel’s Mass Et ecce terrae motus is set for twelve voices, and in its use of antiphony and harmonic shifts, reminds me in some ways of Tallis’s Spem in Alium, which was written several years later. This is Brumel’s most well-known mass, and is a significant work, both in duration and in technique. His compositional style builds on the work of his teacher, Josquin Desprez, but creates further developments of the form, using more chordal textures in this work than perhaps would have been usual for the time. He is freer in his use of imitation than other composers of the time, and his compositional style here anticipates that of Palestrina and others from later eras.
The final work in this collection is Heinrich Isaac’s Missa paschalis, which contains the movements of the Ordinary of the mass, but does not have a Credo. It uses the specific chants for Easter Mass as cantus firmus motifs. Some extraordinary moments of harmony are particularly memorable, and plainchant is an important feature.
Overall, this box-set provides a good overview of the repertoire of the era, with some well-prepared and carefully considered performances. The choral sound is good although I felt that the audio quality lacks the clarity that is achieved on other recordings of the repertoire - for example, Ensemble Musica Nova’s 2007 Missa Cuiusvis Toni recording on Aeon. Having said that, this set provides excellent value for money and serves as an enjoyable and valuable introduction to the choral repertoire of this era.
Carla Rees 

An enjoyable and valuable introduction to the choral repertoire of this era.