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Praga Rosa Bohemiae
Cappella Mariana / Vojtěch Semerád
rec. 2018, Cistercian Monastery, Osek, Czech Republic
Texts and translations available online
SUPRAPHON SU4273-2 [62:56]

Josquin Desprez is arguably the most famous of all Renaissance composers, and the number of recordings of his oeuvre bears witness to that. However, it is still possible to make a recording of Renaissance polyphony and include a piece from his pen that has never been recorded before. That is the case with the present disc which includes pieces from Central European sources, and more specifically sources that are connected to Bohemia.

Martyn Horina, in his liner-notes, mentions that Prague was a centre of European culture during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It took advantage from to the mobility of composers but also the dissemination of musical manuscripts. As a result, the sources include a wide variety of music by composers from across the continent, as the track-list of this disc shows.

The core of the programme is a mass by Heinrich Isaac, an almost exact contemporary of Josquin, who was considered his equal as far as the quality of his compositions is concerned. Taking this into account, it is rather odd that he does not receive the same attention as Josquin. Therefore the inclusison of the Missa Presulem ephebeatum is especially welcome. The main reason that it has been recorded as part of this programme is that its cantus firmus is a motet by the 15th-century composer Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz (or Piotr of Grudziądz). He studied at the university of Cracow, and then seems to have worked for some time in Vienna. Only a small number of pieces can be attributed to him, among them this piece, whose opening sentence is an acrostic of his name. This particular piece has become well-known in the whole of Central Europe. In Isaac's time it was often sung as a humorous carol (on a different text) for the feast of St Martin. This may well have been the reason that Isaac chose it as the cantus firmus for his mass. He used material from the lower part of this piece and incorporated it in the tenor part of his mass.

The programme is ordered more or less chronologically. The first two sections of Isaac's mass are followed by pieces by some of his contemporaries, like him representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. The identity of Johannes Tourout is not entirely clear, according to New Grove. However, Vojtěch Semerád, in his liner-notes, refers to a recently discovered document in which he is mentioned as a cantor for the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in Vienna and as a priest in the Tournai diocese. His music has been preserved in several Central-European sources. Jacob Obrecht is included here with a motet whose text says: "O Mightiest, now grant thy mercy to the Bohemian people, do give us lasting peace and universal protection". However, this is not the text Obrecht set to music. We have here an example of a contrafactum: an existing composition whose music is used for a different text. The original title is Lacen adieu, a song on a Dutch text in honour of Johannes Ockeghem. With this text it has only been preserved in the Codex Speciálnik, one of the most important Bohemian sources.

Josquin's setting of the Stabat mater has been recorded before, although, to my surprise, I could only find one other recording in ArkivMusic. It is based on a cantus firmus, Gilles Binchois's chanson Comme femme desconfortée. One copy of this work, which is part of a collection of music once in the possession of the Rokycany Literary Brotherhood, has an additional sixth voice with the indication si placet, "if you like". What we have here is the first recording of the Stabat mater in a version for six voices.

The remaining composers in the programme are largely unknown quantities. Recently Hyperion released a disc with a mass by Lupus Hellinck, a little-known composer who travelled through Europe, and stayed for some time at the court of Sigismondo d'Este in Ferrara. Here he composed three penitential psalms in reaction to the conviction of the Dominican reformer Savonarola. In te, Domine, speravi, is a setting of verses from the second penitential Psalm (30/31). Jacob Regnart entered the service of the Habsburgs at the early age of 17, probably as a boy chorister. He worked at the various courts - Vienna, Prague and Innsbruck - until his death, with an interval in the late 1560s when he went to Italy to broaden his horizon. Defunctum charites Vaetem is a motet he composed at the occasion of the death of his teacher, Jacob Vaet, who was Kapellmeister of Maximilian II.

The three last pieces are from of the last stage of the stile antico, at the time the dominance of the Franco-Flemish school was making way for Italian, and particularly Venetian, influences. These are already discernible in some of these compositions. Pierre de Bonhomme was from Ličge and worked for some time in Rome. Praecinite Domino is a motet in the Venetian polychoral style. "Psallite Deo nostro in cithara" (sing praises unto our God upon the harp) is used as a kind of refrain. The other two composers are from Central Europe. Kryštof Harant was from the lower Bohemian nobility and connected to the Habsburg court. He made a trip to the Holy Land, which inspired him to the composition of Qui confidunt Domine, a setting of Psalm 125. Joannes Sixtus Pragensis (also known as Jan Sixt z Lerchenfelsu), worked in his early years as a singer in Rudolf II's chapel. His Te Deum is dedicated to Ferdinand II. It is an alternatim composition.

Eight out of ten pieces in the programme are new to the catalogue. From that angle this disc is a meaningful addition to the discography of Renaissance polyphony. One of the blessings of the dissemination of the interest in and performance of early music across Europe, is that the musical past of various regions is explored by performers and ensembles who have a relatively easy access to lesser common sources. The importance of discs like the present one can be hardly overestimated. It is to be hoped that more music from Renaissance Bohemia will be performed and recorded. I can hardly imagine a better ensemble for that task than the Cappella Mariana. Seldom I have so much enjoyed the singing of an ensemble of this kind. The two brilliant sopranos, Hana Blazikova and Barbora Kabatková, have a substantial influence on the sound this ensemble produces. Not only blend the voices perfectly, the singers also shape the lines beautifully and create a nice but never exaggerated dynamic shading. Lastly, the acoustic is just right: there is a nice amount of space around the ensemble without too much reverberation.

This disc offers the perfect combination of an interesting programme and superb singing. It goes straight to my list of recordings of the year.

Johan van Veen

PETRUS WILHELMI de Grudencz (1392-after 1452)
Presulem ephebeatum [3:21]
Heinrich ISAAC (c1450-1517)
Missa Presulem ephebeatum:
Kyrie [1:09]
Gloria [3:21]
Johannes TOUROUT (before 1460-?)
Recordare, virgo mater [4:02]
Heinrich ISAAC
Missa Presulem ephebeatum:
Credo [5:16]
Jacob OBRECHT (1457-1505)
Largire nunc mitissime [1:24]
Heinrich ISAAC
Missa Presulem ephebeatum:
Sanctus [4:52]
Agnus Dei [2:47]
JOSQUIN DESPREZ (1450/55-1521)
Stabat mater a 6 [7:22]
Lupus (Wulfaert) HELLINCK (c1493-1541)
In te, Domine, speravi [6:19]
Jacobus REGNART (c1540-1599)
Defunctum charites Vaetem [4:51]
Pierre DE BONHOMME (c1555-1617)
Praecinite Domino [2:47]
Kryštof HARANT (1564-1621)
Qui confidunt [3:11]
Joannes SIXTUS Pragensis (Jan SIXT z Lerchenfelsu) (1566/68-1629)
Te Deum

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