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Pierre de MANCHICOURT (c.1510-1564)
Reges Terrae [6.43]
Missa Reges Terrae [37.04]
Caro Mea [5.28]
Ne Reminiscaris [5.08]
Vidi Speciosum [6.36]
Regina Caeli [4.45]
Choir of St. Luke in the Fields, New York/David Shuler
rec. 1-2 March 2016, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City
MSR CLASSICS MS1632 [65.44]

This is the first recording of Manchicourt’s Missa Reges Terrae but not the first CD devoted to this composer's music. That was achieved by the Huelgas Ensemble in 1996 with their disc concentrating on the Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus (Sony SK62694). The only piece which can be heard on both CDs is the Epiphany motet Reges Terrae and this the composer turned into a mass several years later. Otherwise Pierre de Manchicourt is hardly known although he was very highly regarded in his lifetime.

The Huelgas Ensemble and this American choir are, as you might imagine, rather different in tone quality and general approach. The St. Luke Choir seems to consist of twelve voices - so three to a part - when Manchicourt is writing in four parts. The Huelgas Ensemble is of the same size but sing more lightly and, as with the motet Regis Terrae, take it at a faster tempo, which, I must say, I rather prefer. The reason why a lighter touch is important is that, by the admission of the John Bradley who has written the detailed and very helpful booklet notes, the music is dense and strongly imitative. It is more in the style of the earlier years of the sixteenth century and composers like his countryman Gombert and the great Spanish master Morales. There is no doubt that the St Luke choir make a wonderfully rich, full-throated and open sound which is often very moving; I just wish for an occasional stronger variation of dynamic shading and sometimes of tempo. The "A-men" at the end of the Gloria of the mass is wonderful but surely it could have been lifted a little more deftly. In addition, an even more consistent attention to clarity of text would have been helpful instead of just aiming for a lovely tone. Tuning however is almost always assured with just a few blemishes in the Mass.

In fact the very old-fashioned nature of the writing was the reason why Manchicourt became a totally forgotten figure by 1600. Indeed many of his works on manuscript are, apparently, still awaiting an editor. This is no reason for us to dismiss this wonderful composer and although I have made some detrimental comments about the performance, this choir does convey much of the beauty, brilliance and spirit of the music, which is of a high quality and at times, tear-jerkingly haunting.

The motet Reges Terrae has a striking opening: a rising fifth. This is used at the start of each of the movements in what is a parody mass. The motets are, in their own way, equally arresting and often exceedingly cleverly written. Caro mea has a text suitable for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Its popularity, and indeed the popularity of Manchicourt’s first book of motets, can be attested to by the fact that Clemens non Papa (d.1556) used it as the basis of a parody mass of his own.

The Regina Caeli — also from the successful Attaignant collection of 1536 — is a curiosity because of its canonic writing. One voice starts after the other canonically but by missing out the rests catches up with and eventually overtakes the other upper voice resulting in some fascinating rhythmic effects.

Vidi speciosum is the composer’s only known eight-part polychoral work. Further evidence of a possible friendship between Manchicourt and Clemens is that it strongly resembles the latter's ‘Ego flos campi’ written a good decade later. The final Alleluia is in the composer’s favoured triple metre.

Ne reminiscaris is for four voices and has a text suitable for a penitential season: “Spare us, good Lord, spare your people whom you redeemed with your precious blood”. Its flowing, falling phrases are very evocative.

The recording throughout offers just enough space and detailing to be fully effective.

This is music that has been much overlooked, presented here - with a few caveats - in often moving performances.

Gary Higginson


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