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8.10.05

Folger Consort

The best paper that I heard recently at the very funny fall meeting of the Capital Chapter of the American Musicological Society was about a little-known Mass ordinary setting, Missa Hodie scietis, by Renaissance composer Antoine Bruhier. While he was trying to identify the source of some of the material recycled in the work, Richard Wexler, professor of musicology at the University of Maryland, discovered that Bruhier was citing extensively not from a single motet or chanson, the process followed normally in creating a so-called parody or imitation Mass. The Mass is based distinctly on a motet by Heinrich Isaac, Hodie scietis (proper to Christmas Eve), but it also recycles melodic and contrapuntal material from at least five different works by Josquin des Prez. Bruhier probably composed Missa Hodie scietis, which Wexler has been able to attribute to Bruhier on the basis of an overlooked, fire-damaged manuscript in Treviso, while he was working in Ferrara. Wexler offered a very convincing hypothesis that this Mass was a record of the famous competition between Josquin and Isaac, for a position in Ferrara, of which Bruhier was probably a direct witness.

Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, Folger ConsortIt is one of the more famous compositional confrontations in the Renaissance, usually characterized as pitting the Mozart of the 16th century -- Josquin was called the "master of the notes," someone whose natural facility with counterpoint was legendary -- against a very talented and less egotistical, and therefore more compliant, journeyman composer. The same comparison was the idea behind the first program offered by another prominent group on Washington's extraordinary early music scene, the Folger Consort. It was called Josquin and Isaac, presented for the first of four concerts last night in the Folger Shakespeare Library's gorgeous Elizabethan Theater.

After a short introduction by the group's manager, David Covington, the four guest vocalists sang the first piece, Josquin's remarkable motet Ave Maria, from somewhere off stage. The effect was lovely, cloaking the voices in the veiled distance. This motet was a sign of Josquin's compositional genius, even at a fairly early point in his career. Its simple and impassioned sound, especially the beautiful declamatory final statement which ends on an open fifth, made it very popular. The great music publisher Ottaviano Petrucci, in fact, chose it to receive pride of place, as the first motet, in his Motetti A volume of the Odhecaton, the first example of music printed with moveable type, as noted by Robert Eisenstein in his program notes. All four singers blended quite nicely together as a quartet.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Folger's Josquin, Isaac: Broad, Not Deep (Washington Post, October 10)
Countertenor Jay White sounded better in the ensemble than on his own, where a sort of nervous nasality crept in to his voice. Tenor Philip Cave (formerly of the Tallis Scholars and several other excellent groups) and mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead sang particularly well together in the charming duet chanson Comment peult avoir joye. I have admired Hollinshead's skills before, and she gave an excellent, sensitive performance of Johannes Ockeghem's legendary chanson D'ung aultre amer, included on the Josquin part of the program because of Josquin's strange and beautiful quotation from it in his motet Tu solus qui facis mirabilia, which followed it. (Josquin ingeniously transforms the chanson's line "My heart would be debased by love of another" from its secular context into the single-minded love owed to God.) Baritone William Sharp, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, performed Isaac's most famous song, Innsbruch, ich muss dich lassen, as a lute chanson.

The two instrumental leaders of the Folger Consort were joined by guest artists Daniel Stillman (on recorders, dulcian, and even trombone) and Margriet Tindemans (on viol and recorder). Most of the instrumental pieces were played capably, although the set of Isaac works on the second half seemed underrehearsed because of the lack of rhythmic ensemble and a few mangled notes. The program featured some good old favorites, like Josquin's famous chanson Mille regretz, as well as the Italian frottole Scaramella and El grillo. The latter, a silly little ditty ostensibly about a noisy cricket (like the one that so annoyed Jens at La Maison Française), is almost always the favorite piece of Renaissance music with any group of students I teach, because of its vibrant dancelike rhythmic pulse. It was rendered very well, with smiles all around on the performers' faces.

The Folger Consort also introduced me to some interesting new works, especially on the Isaac half of the program, like the Canto della dée (Song of the Goddesses), composed for the neoplatonic circle of Isaac's employer in Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici. It is dedicated to the three goddesses Juno, Aphrodite, and Minerva (the group sadly cut the work short in performance), all of whom "come together to live in Florence [...] And it will be said: Florence is Paradise." Amen to that. In the famous competition between Josquin and Isaac, in spite of many letters of recommendation on both sides, it was Josquin who won the post in Ferrara. Listening to the two halves of this program, I think it was the right decision, although a hard one to make.

Remaining performances of Josquin and Isaac, by the Folger Consort, are scheduled for today (October 8, 5 and 8 pm) and tomorrow (October 9, 2 pm). Tickets are $28.

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