Heinrich ISAAC (c1450-1517)
Missa De Apostolis [29:00]
Motets: Optime pastor [9:37]; Tota pulchra es [8:56]; Regine cli laetare [6:12]; Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum [8:40]; Virgo prudentissima [12:25]
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
rec. The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Salle, Norfolk, England. 1990s?
Latin texts and English, French, German translations included
GIMELL CDGIM023 [74:50]

Last year I reviewed a compilation album, Perfect Polyphony, by the Tallis Scholars. Most of the music and, indeed, the recordings themselves were familiar to me but one was not. That was the motet Optime pastor by Heinrich Isaac. Impressed, I resolved to hear the disc from which it was taken, especially since we didn’t appear to have reviewed it on MusicWeb International.

Isaac was a contemporary of another Flemish composer, Josquin des Prs (c.1440-1521). Like Josquin, Isaac spent time in Italy; according to Peter Phillips he had entered the service of Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence by 1485. From 1497 until his death, he was in the service of Emperor Maximilian I, dividing his time between Vienna and Florence but increasingly favouring the latter city. In his essay Phillips points out that Isaac's style differs from that of Josquin in that Isaac favours five- or six-part writing (Josquin preferred four parts) and he “put greater trust in pure sound, and in doing so wrote longer spans of melody than Josquin.” To my ears Isaac’s music frequently has great opulence and there’s abundant evidence here of his extended melodic spans.

The main offering on this programme is Missa De Apostolis, which was composed around 1500. It is so called because it is based on plainchant themes associated with the Feast of the Apostles. The setting, which does not include a Credo, is in six parts (SSATBB, I think) and throughout it Isaac alternates sections of plainchant and polyphonic passages. The long spans of melody of which Peter Phillips spoke are immediately apparent in the Kyrie. In the Gloria there’s a passage which Phillips singles out for special mention. It comes at “Gratias agimus” (1:46-2:59) where there’s tremendous melodic richness across all the parts. In the Sanctus the Tallis Scholars sing the “Pleni sunt cli” passage with great fervour, making the music very exciting. By contrast the Benedictus is serene. This is a fine and very interesting Mass setting, which I’m delighted to have discovered in such a splendid performance.

Of the five motets, two have clear connections with Emperor Maximilian. These are Optime pastor and Virgo prudentissima. The former was written for the occasion in December 1513 when Cardinal Lang, Chancellor to the Holy Roman Emperor, met with the newly-elected Pope Leo X. As I said in my previous review of this recording, Isaac seems to have pulled out all the stops to provide a spectacular piece for this important occasion. The piece is opulently scored (SATTBB) and the polyphony is exuberant; indeed, the writing is virtuosic. The piece is very spirited and so is this performance. Virgo prudentissima was probably written in 1507 as Maximilian’s imperial coronation was approaching. It’s an elaborate, richly scored composition. The Tallis Scholars make it really exciting through the urgency of their singing. It’s a most impressive piece and here it receives a terrific performance.

Peter Phillips describes Tota pulchra es as “a supreme achievement”. It’s a setting of words from "The Song of Songs" and Isaac’s writing is both intricate and expressive. I listened out for a passage to which Peter Phillips draws particular attention. It’s the passage at “Flores apparuerunt” (from 4:15) where the ornate melodic line, in the tenor, is surrounded by other parts which sing harmonised, slow-moving chant around it. My description doesn’t begin to do justice to the alluring music: you need to hear it.

The programme is completed by two more motets: Regine cli laetare and Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum. The former is a very joyful Marian piece while the latter is a splendid Easter motet.

This isn’t a recent disc; it was set down, I believe, in the early 1990s. However, the recorded sound, engineered by Mike Clements and Mike Hatch, is immaculate and the recording sounds as fresh and immediate as the day it was made. “Immaculate” is one word which well describes the singing of the Tallis Scholars but they go beyond that in their delivery. There’s an excitement to the way that they perform some of these pieces which is as great as I can recall in any of their other discs that have come my way.

If the music of Heinrich Isaac is an unknown quantity to you, as it was to me, then I can’t imagine it receiving finer advocacy than it does here. On this evidence Isaac was a significant figure in Renaissance music and he’s been extremely well served on this disc by the Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips.

John Quinn

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