ANONYMOUS (15th-16th centuries)
Missa Transfigurationis
In Vigiliam [19:00]
Suffragia [4:16]
Missa Sancta Trinitas [37:04]
Antoine DE FÉVIN (c.1470 - 1511/1512)
Motet, Sancta Trinitas [2:42]
Psallentes/Hendrik Vanden Abeele (baritone/director)
rec. 2014, Abbaye de Beaufays, Belgium. DDD

This CD from the ever-enterprising Belgian label, Musique en Wallonie, presents clean, clear, penetrating, yet appropriately emotionally-charged singing from Psallentes, the nine-person group from that country. They have captured the calm and the conviction of anonymous vocal works - including the beautiful Mass, Sancta Trinitas - from fifteenth and sixteenth century religious music of the region. The manuscripts (shelf-marked ‘BCT A 58’) are located in the cathedral of Tournai (also in Walloon) and were rediscovered in 2006 after having disappeared (and thought lost) at the end of the Second World War.

The Brotherhood of the Transfiguration was a small group of priests and clerics formed in the first half of the fifteenth century specifically to meet first twice, then eventually only once, a year to celebrate that Biblical event. Associated with both Tournai and Cambrai, the Brotherhood lasted for over 300 years.

Psallentes’ singing on this CD is unfussy, purposeful, directed, technically unostentatious and polished. Yet, the beautiful singing which they present never relies on an attempt to work up an atmosphere or a spurious ‘occasion’; it’s singing full of dedication, sincerity and colour. That Psallentes contains a similar number of singers to the Brotherhood helps: the balance between the declamatory (at times almost ecstatic) style of the texts and the all the more contrasting restraint suits such a number. Intimacy takes second place to certainty and to gentle force in delivery. At the same time the sense of unison and collaboration in worship is patent; it comes to seem necessary and natural.

Another aspect to the singers’ thrust and purpose may lie in the fact that they’re performing music which openly deviates from the established ecclesiastical hierarchy of the time. The Brotherhood may have been supporters of Jan Hus or specifically Hussite movements in the fifteenth century … hence, perhaps, the almost rhetorical certainty of the ‘outsider’. There are links between Mount Thabor, site of the Transfiguration and Tábor in Huss’ Bohemia. The former is mentioned with joy throughout these texts.

Manuscript BCT A 58 contains the Libellus of the Brotherhood - a composite collection on parchment. It contains four distinct sections: a vigil; a processional, mass and prayers for the dead from the Brotherhood; an anonymous Mass; and Févin’s motet, Sancta Trinitas. These are each performed and grouped to correspond to the sequence of a service in the way that contemporaries would expect - within the Mass. There are thus plainchant, polyphony, simple expositional monody and ensemble passages.

The performers have aimed to strike a balance between authenticity and expression: particularly in matters of rhythm and phrasing, Psallentes have decided to opt for what truly seems to be the most natural and obvious approach, although it may not always adhere to the intricacies of mensural notation. What’s more, although this music could be taken to illustrate some musical trends of the time, these performances emphasise its ‘local’ nature (that is, as being rooted in a specific time and place) and treat it as music for its own sake; not to try and make any more general points.

The acoustic of the Abbaye de Beaufays in Belgium has just the right amount of resonance for the blend between passion and precision alluded to. It might be a little on the dry side if you want to ‘lose yourself’ in shadows and echoes but the clarity and acknowledgement of space are really what is needed. The bound hardback in which the CD comes contains background (actually the essence of an article about BCT A 58 by Anne-Emmanuelle Ceulemans, previously published elsewhere) in French, German and Dutch as well as English with the works’ texts in those languages, as well as the original Latin. This is glorious music of interesting provenance sung with just the right balance of attack and sensitivity. It will appeal to lovers of late Mediaeval and Renaissance choral music and appears to be otherwise unavailable on CD. Technically well-produced and presented, it makes an important addition to the current catalogue.

Mark Sealey

Members of Psallentes
Rob Cuppens (counter-tenor)
Jonathan de Ceuster (counter-tenor)
Gunther Vandeven (counter-tenor)
Niek Van den Dool (tenor)
Gregory Skidmore (baritone)
Philippe Favette (bass)
Arnout Malfliet (bass)
Paul Mertens (bass))

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