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Codex Speciálník - Polyphony in Prague c.1500
Cappella Mariana/Vojtčch Semerád
rec. Church of St. Peter in Oehlinghausen, June 2016
ETCETERA KTC1571 [62.31]

This is not the first time that pieces from this rarely heard manuscript have been recorded. Back in 1995 The Hilliard Ensemble, just four of them, recorded twenty-five mostly short pieces (ECM New Series 1504). These were, until then, unrecorded Czech pieces by composers like Petrus de Grudencz but Josquin, Agricola and even John Plummer featured demonstrating the internationalism of the manuscript. Further proof is gained through this new recording on which we find Heinrich Isaac (d. March 1517) and Heinrich Finck (d.1527).

Whereas the Hilliard’s were a small ensemble singing a capella, The ‘Capella Mariana’ are five voices one soprano, two tenors, baritone and a bass but they are often accompanied by an instrumental ensemble sometimes of a further five performers who also are offered the chance of some purely instrumental works. They play cornetto, trombones, organetto and other keyboards. Its good that the booklet tells us who made these instruments and where. The sound world of this CD then is quite different from the Hilliard’s. There is no doubling up of items.

The Codex contains mostly liturgical compositions but some are untexted and their titles indicate secular use such as the remarkable Muteta kokodác which Vojtčch Semerád who directs the ensemble describes in his useful booklet notes as “a comic piece” because of its abundant syncopations and odd melodic lines suggesting, he opines, “a hen quawking or a horse neighing” . He also tells us that that music in churches was financed and “enhanced by the performance of newly established burghers”….and that “instrumentalists played an important role in various every-day and festive occasions in the medieval city”. There is also a song in the Czech language Nas mily svaty Vaclave is in honour of St Wenceslas the tenth century king who was assassinated.

The middle section of the CD incorporates a Mass sequence that is a troped Kyrie performed by solo soprano and a badly balanced organetto playing the more elaborate counterpoint. A Gloria given to soprano, tenor and keyboard which reminds me, stylistically of Dufay, a Credo for four voices a capella by Isaac as is also a flowing and elegant Sanctus by one Flemmik an otherwise unknown figure. The solemn motet Discubuit Jesus has a text of which concerns the Last Supper, it is given to four voices and wind instruments the trombone supporting the cantus firmus line and elsewhere enhancing the male vocal parts. Another approach is in the lengthy motet Benedicta sempe sancta, a prayer to the Trinity in which the verses are interpolated by a solo organ verse, as also happened in England at this time.

Although there are some beautiful moments, I’m not too sure how interesting this music really is but one can hardly fault the performers, the recording or the presentation. Despite the fact that ‘Capella Mariana’ use a wide variety of vocal colours and instruments, I feel that that the music chosen by the Hilliard ensemble on their disc is more noteworthy and performed with a great passion and commitment.

The recording venue is a suitable early baroque church of Oehlinghausen in West Germany and it mostly allows space and clarity around the voices. There are photos in the booklet, the above-mentioned essay and full texts with good translations.

Gary Higginson



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