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Nicolas Champion (c.1475-1533) Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena
Capella Pratensis/Stratton Bell
rec. 2021, Catharijnekirke, Heusden, Netherlands Apostola apostolorum - The den Bosch Choirbooks Volume 3 CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72879SACD 
The art of improvising – or more correctly extemporising around a plainsong melody – has never died; many organists do it to this day. In the Renaissance, it was taught from an early age and required throughout the life of any professional musician. We tend to accept it as a trait for organists, especially such Elizabethans as Thomas Preston and William Blitheman, but we forget that singers were required to improvise as well. A few plainchants surrounding the Mass in honour of St. Mary Magdalene on this disc give us an opportunity to grasp what might have happened in the early sixteenth century.
It was said that listeners at the time could not always tell where notated polyphony ended and improvised parts began, but it is clear here. The singers harmonise with appealing lines which are not too complex but cleverly add to the chant in a way suggested by some contemporary sources. When we say “improvise”, we do not mean that it is not rehearsed or worked out but that it is not written down.
St. Mary Magdalene is often thought of, perhaps incorrectly, as the converted prostitute who was one of the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, hence she is called the apostle to the apostles: Apostola apostolorum. Her feast day, July 22nd, was one of the most significant of the year. The disc not only includes music for a Mass in her honour but also Vespers. There are significant references to her in the text and music. For example, the supporting tenor plainchant is allotted texts which tell of the few events we know from the Gospels. The Agnus dei, for instance, is underpinned by the words “While weeping at the tomb / I saw the Lord”. The Sanctus had the tenor text “Mary came and told the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’”.
All of the music in the Vespers section is said to be anonymous. First comes Mundi fastum: “She revoked the pride of the world and subjected herself totally to the Lord’s service”. Next, Psalm 112 “Praise the Lord all you children”, and Quando Martha, referring to Mary’s hardworking sister, followed by Psalm 109. Then, the polyphony hymn Sydus solare which begins “The sun in its course draws back the feast of this longed-for day”. The plainchant is sung in alternation with harmonised passages. The service ends with the plainchant Fidelis sermo and the Magnificat.
The Franco-Flemish master Nicholas Champion is little known and little recorded. He worked for the Hapsburg-Burgundian chapel between 1507-1515 when this Mass may well have been composed. His music is found in the den Bosch Choirbooks. This is the third of a projected five-volume series of recordings from that book. It is sung by the all-male eleven-voice group Cappella Pratensis under the direction of scholar and conductor Stratton Bull. He also wrote the excellent booklet essay.
This is certainly a fascinating project, but I have to say that Champion’s polyphony, although poised and careful, feels rather bland and does not have any stand-out passages. Even so, there is considerable technical skill in the imposition of texts and music in a subtle manner. Indeed, I found the polyphonic verses of the wonderful Magnificat more vital and interesting. It is great pity that its composer cannot be traced.
The singing, clearly focused, well recorded and beautifully balanced makes this music possibly seem better than it is.
Gary Higginson Contents
All pieces other than 2, 3, 5, 7 and 9 are anonymous.
1. Introitus: Gaudeamus omnes
2. Champion: Kyrie from the Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena
3. Champion: Gloria
4. Sequentia: Laus tibi Christe
5. Champion: Credo
6. Plainchant: Prefatio
7. Champion/Pierre de la Rue (c.1452-1518): Sanctus with Elevation motet O Salutaris hostia
8. Plainchant: Pater noster
9. Champion: Agnus dei
10. Plainchant: Communio - Diffusa est gratia
11. Plainchant: Invitatorium
12. Antiphon: Mundi fastum abdicavit & Psalm 112 Laudate pueri
13. Antiphon: Quando Martha satagabat & Psalm 119 Dixit Dominus
14. Hymn: Sydus solare
15. Antiphon: Fidelis sermo - Magnificat