Ghiselin DANCKERTS (1510-1567)
Missa de Beata Virgine a 5  voci [51:05]
Cantar Lontano / Marco Mencobani
rec. 2009, Chiesa di San Marco, Castelbellino & Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena, Pesaro, Italy
Latin texts included
PAN CLASSICS PC10327 [51:05]
The name of Ghiselin Danckerts has not graced the catalogues before. It is fair to say that he represents little more than a footnote in the history of Renaissance music, a footnote in frankly what has little to do his compositions. Those readers who are experts on the era may be familiar with an event that took place in Rome in 1551, namely the Vincentino-Lusitano debate. This appears to have been an earnest public discussion about the future of music. It involved the conservatively minded Portuguese composer Vicente Lusitano and the more radical Italian theorist (and inventor of a microtonal keyboard, the archicembalo) Nicola Vincentino (1511-1576). The discussion focused upon the nature of contemporary music; Lusitano claimed that music had always been exclusively reliant on diatonicism and would remain so; the progressive Vincentino on the other hand advocated the incorporation of chromatic and enharmonic genera. Ghiselin Danckerts was sufficiently influential at the time to have been appointed to the panel of judges; as a traditionalist he unswervingly supported Lusitano, whose arguments emphatically won the day.
So what else is known about Danckerts? He was born in the Dutch province of Zeeland. As a young man he went to Italy and was employed by a Neapolitan aristocrat. It seems he was admitted as a singer to the Papal Chapel in 1538. He remained in post until he was unceremoniously railroaded out in 1565, apparently as a direct consequence of the reorganisation and cost-cutting that was triggered by the Council of Trent, although the note in the Chapel diary relating to his removal tartly observed that “…he is without voice, he is given to women, is excessively rich, and is useless because of illness…" He died not long afterwards; little of his music survives. The present Mass (which here consists of the five movements of the Ordinary Mass with four Proper texts interpolated), only recently unearthed in Rome, is by some distance his major surviving work.
Given Danckerts’s supposedly conservative reputation, I was immediately struck by the almost ecstatic nature of the opening Introitus. The rather clumsily translated note informs us that typically in the 16th century Catholic liturgy the texts of the Mass Proper featured improvised content over the relevant Plainchant, represented by the cantus firmus in the bass. What renders Danckerts’s work particularly unusual is that here these movements are fully notated while conductor Marco Mencoboni has doubled the cantus firmus by adding a contra bassus (the ripely toned Gavino Murgia in this instance). The eleven voices of Cantar Lontano thus appear to encompass a gargantuan sonic spectrum which impresses from the outset, though the unfamiliarity of Danckerts’s strange idiom, and the rather cavernous and uneven acoustic makes it extremely difficult to report on the security of intonation. In the more complex Proper Mass movements, the inner parts are sometimes overwhelmed by the higher and lower voices, while at different points in the Ordinary Mass movements they seem to dominate. This is almost certainly down to the fact that the recording took place in two separate churches.
If those comments sound rather critical, I must redress the balance by reporting that I found the 50 minute or so duration of this work absolutely flew by – it is unpredictable, fascinating and frequently thrilling. Although the Ordinary Mass movements seemingly have more conventional structures, I found it impossible to identify any obvious points of reference or comparison. Indeed the almost cool beauty of those movements provides a delectable contrast with the intricacies and ecstasies of their Proper Mass counterparts. The Introitus and Alleluia (in this case the prayers Gaudeamus in omnes Domino and Assumpta est Maria respectively) sound extraordinarily modern to my ears. The improvisatory spirit of these two movements at times renders the music dizzying and pleasantly disorienting. At one point towards the end of the Introitus the weight of the lower voices conceals the fragile beauty of the higher ones, creating an almost repressed effect. Elements of the Alleluia sound almost Ligetian.
Among the Ordinary Mass movements, Mencobani varies the three sections of the Kyrie by entrusting its central panel to solo voices; it features a particularly stark and strange dissonance shortly before its conclusion. The Gloria is fervent, florid and mobile, its rhythms ornate and complex. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei both convey a more austere but no less profound beauty.
Apart from the balance problems, one beef I have with this recording is that the pauses between movements are far too brief and consequently somewhat jarring, given the singular nature of Danckerts’s music. Given that Pan Classics have acquired the rights to this recording from Amadeus (it was originally issued by them in 2015), I am surprised they have not taken the opportunity to remaster it. But I really would not want any curious readers to be put off experiencing this weird yet wonderful Mass by what are ultimately minor caveats. The eleven members of Cantar Lontano are clearly utterly convinced by Danckerts’s strange enchantments – and I feel many enthusiasts will respond just as positively to a compelling and seemingly unique work.