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Nostre Dame Guillaume de MACHAUT (c.1300-1377) Messe de Nostre Dame [26.19] Jacobus GALLUS ? (c.1550-1591) Ave Maria [2.05] Guillaume DUFAY c.1397-1474) Ave Maris Stella [5:01] Pierre de la RUE (c.1460-1518) Magnificat [15.10] Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA(1525-1594) Ave Maria [3.26] Juan de IRIBARREN (1699-1767) Stabat Mater [1.34] Adam MICHNA (c.1600-1676) Mariánské Ave [1.58] Tomas Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Salve Regina [3.51] Josquin DESPREZ (c.1445- 1521) Ave Maria virgo serena [5.49]
Vienna Vocal Consort
rec. Dominican Church of Retz, Austria, no date given KLANGLOGO KL1412 [65.31]
The title and frontispiece of this CD are a little misleading, the only composer mentioned is Machaut but his famous Mass takes up less than half the playing time, with music by composers complimenting it going into the mid 18th Century. If its just early medieval music you especially like then you are in for a slight surprise. Adding to the confusion is the inside of the disc which has a beautiful manuscript illustration from the manuscript of Machaut’s own ‘Remède de fortune’.
After the first item, a short Ave Maria which here is attributed to Gallus (otherwise known as Jacob Handl) but is probably by Victoria we are launched into the complete Mass.
I first came across this extraordinary music back in c.1968 in a recording by the Purcell Consort of Voices on a L’Oiseau Lyre LP. It has never, very sadly, been transferred to CD but I still play it, and what has never been bettered, almost anywhere, is the way in which vitality, excitement and energy are projected at every moment therefore allowing the hockets and various rhythmic twists and syncopations to be enjoyed and revelled in. The only other performance which comes close is that by the Hilliard Ensemble on Hyperion (CDA66358).
From reading the interesting booklet essay by the group’s tenor Martin Jan Stepanek entitled ‘Thoughts on how we approach Machaut’s music’ he comments that “we have turned to Machaut time and again” indicating a maturely thought-out interpretation where everyone is completely on top of the interpretation and musical demands. Unfortunately that is not the impression conveyed in this performance. The tempo is rather too pedestrian and careful not only in the mass but throughout the disc going against the spirit of his later remarks that the Marian settings have a “musical and spiritual energy” although the work which comes off worst in this respect is de la Rue’s Magnificat. Rhythmic focus is vital in the Machaut to bring out the bravura elements. But I would also draw your attention to other performances which I have heard and which I suggest you avoid, that is by the Deller Consort on DHM, which is poorly balanced, Marcel Pérès on Harmonia Mundi very edgy in tone quality, Rene Clemencic on Art Nova, rather raucous and even the Hilliard’s who fill up half of their disc with Machaut’s tedious lay ‘de la Fonteinne’.
It’s not just a question of tempo. Diabolus in Musica under Antoine Guerber on Alpha (ALPHA132) are quite steady but the tone quality is warm and openhearted and, equally importantly the mass is set in a liturgical context with some fascinating extra motets - the coupling is important too. No, what the Vienna Vocal Consort lack is a real sense of drive and purpose of direction especially in the Kyrie and Gloria.
But perhaps this relaxed approach might appeal, as also might the fact that women are used on the two upper voices instead of countertenors, or more commonly now, high tenors. So also the idea of a themed disc of music honouring the Virgin in a variety of widely known texts which as you can see includes some rare music by Juan Ibarren, just a brief few lines from the Stabat Mater hymn, so little known but it appears a man so incredibly prolific or Adam Michna a Czech catholic priest and occasional composer.
As you listen through this new CD you realise how the baroque and renaissance drift naturally into each other but also how there is little differentiation between the tempi and dynamics chosen for each work giving a bland sameness to the pieces despite their disparity of age. The rather dead acoustic of the baroque church at Retz, surprisingly has not helped them.
On a more positive note the singers seem to be more confident and energised by the last works on the disc, the expressive Salve Regina of Victoria and Josquin’s canonic Ave Maria despite the fact that some tuning issues occasionally arise. As well as the essay mentioned above there is also a much longer one by Walther Prokop which takes in the entire period even back into the thirteenth century and attempts to put all of these pieces into some kind of context.
It would be good to know which edition of the Mass is being employed, if it’s the one by David Fallows then there are a few misreadings, or is it a question of ‘musica ficta’, but perhaps we best not get into that can of worms. However all texts are clearly provided and translated as well as illustrations and photographs of the singers.