The Organ Mass is a strange phenomenon in which alternate verses are chanted and played in elaborated form on the organ. It dates back to around 1400, by which time the use of organs in churches seems to have been well established: Chaucer tells us that the voice of Chanticleer was ‘murier than the murie orgon / On messe-dayes that in the chirche gon’.
The format flourished in the 16th
century, and continued until well after the reforms of the Council of Trent should have ended its reign. In fact the best-known examples are François Couperin’s Messe pour les Couvents
and Messe pour les Paroisses
, published in 1690. By that time it was sometimes regarded as an expedient for use in churches without a choir, the organ playing while the priest recited the words quietly. Its use was finally abolished as late as 1903. The instructive Nimbus booklet contains all that you need to know about the genre but you’ll find more in the Oxford Companion to Music
Richard Lester is an accomplished performer of the keyboard music of the 16th
centuries - see my review
of his complete keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti (NI1719). He’s at home with the music here, performed on a modern (2012) model of a renaissance organ and with the able assistance of the Bergamo Cathedral Gregorian singers. There’s a photograph of the organ and a specification of its thirteen stops, and the chosen registration for each organ verset
is included in the booklet.
Not content solely with the use of an authentic instrument, featuring divided D-sharp/E-flat and G-sharp/A-flat, as required for pre-equal temperament tuning but very difficult for modern performers*, Lester observes the directions given by the masters of the period with regard not only to registration but even to fingering and sitting posture.
* The booklet doesn’t specify how the sharp/flat division is achieved but the usual method was to split the front and back halves of the same key. I can only imagine how tricky that would be to play.
Predictably for a performer for whom divided keyboards pose no problems - see my review
of Volumes 1 and 3 of his recording of Frescobaldi’s keyboard music (NI5850 and 5870) - Lester’s technique is beyond reproach. More than that, he makes the music ‘speak’ and demonstrates how eloquent an instrument with such a short range - just over 4 octaves and pedals covering just over one octave - and with limited registration can sound.
With very good recording and notes to match the performances I found the whole enterprise both instructive and enjoyable but I fancy that it will have a less widespread appeal than the Scarlatti and Frescobaldi albums that I’ve already mentioned, tempting scholars rather than the general listener. If you haven’t yet obtained any of Richard Lester’s recordings of those composers, I’d start there: the mp3 version of the Scarlatti is very inexpensive, containing 41 hours of music on nine CDs, yours for just £22 post-paid from MusicWeb International: NI1719 - here
. You’ll also find this Organ Mass set on sale there by the time that this review appears - click on the purchase button.
This 3-CD set is labelled ‘Volume 1’; I imagine that one of the later volumes will include the two Couperin works, most recordings of which feature only the organ part, leaving room for a good recording with the alternatim
In sum this recording is a valuable addition to scholarly resources and I’m sure that it will be valued chiefly for that reason but the general listener will find much of interest and enjoyment here, too.
Previous review: Dominy Clements