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Johannes OCKEGHEM (c.1420-1497)
Complete Songs - Volume 1
Aultre Venus estes sans faille [4.59]
Quant de vous seul je pers la veue [5.43]
Ma Maistresse et ma plus grant amye [7.29]
S’elle ma’amera/Petite camusecte [3.45]
Mort, tu as navré de ton dart/Miserere [9.05]
O rosa bella [2.12]
D’un autre amer mon cueur s’abesseroit [5.30]
Fors seullement l‘actente que je meure [8.30]
Fors seullement contre ce qu’ay promis/Fors seullement l‘actente [7.33]
Se vostre cuer eslongne moy a tort [5.51]
Permanent vierge/Pulcra es/Sancta dei genitrix [7.49]
BARBINGANT (c.1400-c.1460)
Au travail suis que peu de gens croiroient [4.47]
En Atendant vostre venue [3.36]
Blue Heron/Scott Metcalfe
rec. 2018, Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, MA,USA
BLUE HERON BHCD1010 [76.49]

Ockeghem composed, it seems, about thirteen masses many of which have been recorded. There is also just a handful of motets but then there are the rather overlooked secular songs, which for me have often been a great joy and represent, if not his best work, then the true diversity of his genius.

Originally I discovered them in the double disc set recorded by Peter and Timothy Davies of L’Oiseau-Lyre (436194-2) with the Medieval Ensemble of London in 1992/3. Their set amounts to thirty tracks but two were recorded twice and another six songs are now considered to be spurious. Blue Heron’s new disc amounts to thirteen tracks but one song is attributed to Barbingant and another is anonymous, both being related to, or quoted by, Ockeghem.  It seems that, amazingly, it’s going to be two years before volume two comes out and according to my calculations a further eleven songs will need to be on it.

You may have come across Blue Heron’s earlier four discs, some of which I reviewed, of unknown pieces from the Peterhouse part books. There is a 5CD boxed set entitled The Lost Muse of Canterbury. They received several accolades, are superbly sung and are well worth searching out. It was something of a surprise, then, that the group turned to this aspect of Ockeghem.

One especial difference between Blue Heron (now BH) and the Medieval Ensemble of London (now on MEL) is that the performances include just the occasional use of two quiet instruments - a vielle and a harp - with just one purely instrumental track. The MEL use a much wider variety, including sackbuts and recorders. BH’s tempi can often be more relaxed. One extreme example is Ma maistresse et ma plus grant amye in which MEL is more than two minutes quicker, Timothy Penrose being accompanied by two string instruments; also, almost two minutes is knocked off Mort, tu as navré de ton dart and Blue Heron’s slower performance is a capella. This moving song was written as a memorial to Giles Binchois who may have been Ockeghem’s teacher.

As another example, the rondeau Se vostre cuer eslongne moy a tort has been reconstructed by Fabrice Fitch with four verses performed here by two singers with harp; the MEL play just one verse instrumentally on sackbuts and a shawm.

Of course, if you are wanting to research Ockeghem then you can turn to various volumes on Musical History, which are easily obtainable, but in his fascinating and detailed booklet notes Sean Gallagher mentions the only book ever written about Ockeghem by Ernst Krenek (1952), the serial composer and associate of Schoenberg. I have re-read this slim volume and much of it is devoted to a résumé of the development of medieval composition. However, several interesting things emerge which are still relevant and echoed in Metcalfe’s essay. On page 55, Krenek comments, “The manuscripts usually show only the few words of a section of text at the beginning of the corresponding page without coordinating syllables” and he adds later, “it was left to the discretion of the singers how they would distribute the text”. This could well have led to aural textual chaos, so don’t think that you are hearing these songs in the way Ockeghem would have heard them - but you may be hearing them in the way he would have intended.

The reason for his use and choice of instruments, as Metcalfe points out, is that some parts without text do not have enough notes to go with the text, but another way of presenting those parts is to have them vocalised and this he sometimes does, casting “the text of the discantus into a satisfying relief”.

However, the differences in performance may be put to one side when one considers the sheer beauty of the music and the wonderful commitment of these performers. They are deeply expressive - but what do I mean by that in the context of late 15th Century songs? It seems to me that Ockeghem’s harmonies are astonishingly rich and, at times, I think, daring. Blue Heron bring out these qualities in a way which constantly holds one’s attention. His melodies are often wide-ranging and can include subtle imitation and often canon. BH capture the so-called ‘noble simplicity’ of Ockeghem, or, as David Fallows has admitted, a certain ‘inscrutability’, perhaps emerging as a result of this the ‘autumn of the Middle Ages’ as Huizinga has aptly termed it.

The booklet essay is a wonder in itself. There is a clear track reading list, excellently translated texts, Sean Gallagher’s essay about Ockeghem’s songs, Scott Metcalfe’s essay on ‘Performing Ockeghem’s songs’ with quotations from 15th Century writers and commentators on witnessed performances, then a section ‘About the instruments’ also telling us about the makers, followed by ‘Singing the text’ with some technical explanation about the ancient notation. Then we have ‘Rediscovering the sounds of 15th Century French’ and finally colour photos and a biography of the choir and conductor all in a firm, slimline, cardboard-covered casing. It is all quite brilliantly done and completed by a first-class recording.

Gary Higginson

Megan Chartrand, Kim Leeds, Sophie Michaux, Martin Near, Margot Rood (discantus); Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, Stefan Reed, Aaron Sheehan, Sumner Thompson (tenor & contratenor); Paul Guttry, David McFerrin (bassus); Laura Jeppesen (vielle); Scott Metcalfe (director, harp & vielle)

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