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Monumenta Flandrica

available at Amazon
Masses of Flemish Masters,
Tallis Scholars

(re-released on October 13, 2009)
Gimell CDGIM 211 | 149'24"
The polyphonic Mass is one of the heights of European culture, in many ways the musical equivalent of the Gothic cathedral in architecture. For Renaissance composers, it was the symphony of the age, the grandest genre possible for displaying compositional prowess and technical mastery. Studying Renaissance music as a graduate student in the last decade of the previous century, I spent many hours listening to as many recordings of these pieces as I could get my hands on. We were so lucky at that time not to have our only way to experience these pieces be singing them ourselves, as musicology students of previous eras had had to do. Having sung plenty of these Masses, I can say that it is a fine way to appreciate the structure, too, but to have the now-classic recordings of groups like the Tallis Scholars to accompany score study is a luxury.

The five settings of the Latin Mass compiled on this new 2-CD set were recorded by the Tallis Scholars between 1989 and 1997. If you did not acquire them for your collection when they came out, because like me you were a starving graduate student who spent a lot of time at the music library's listening stations, you can now have them together at a heavily discounted price ($20 for two discs). The group is still actively recording, of course, but one has the sense listening to their older recordings that this was their golden age. Isaac's Missa De Apostolis (recorded in 1991) is an absolute gem, in a recording that would be difficult to better: the alternatim setting with fluid, rhythmically free chant performances that provides a pleasing counterpart to the measured polyphony. Lassus's Missa Osculetur me (recorded in 1989), for eight voices in cori spezzati, is stunningly beautiful, with a Dona nobis pacem that absolutely stops time still.

The most remarkable piece of music on the disc, though, is Antoine Brumel's Missa Et ecce terrae motus (recorded in 1991). Huge crescendos (at the end of the Kyrie, but also other places) are created by amassing sound in short repeated phrases, piling up all twelve voices over time, presumably to depict the Easter day earthquake that accompanied the Resurrection (listen for Mark Padmore in the tenor section). The repetition in the work, rippling through several parts and turning back on itself, cries out for comparison to minimalist techniques in much later music. Cipriano de Rore's Missa Praeter rerum seriem still has a beautiful, if occasionally too muscly sound (recorded in 1994: Paul Agnew can be heard in the tenor section). The only (slight) disappointment is Ockeghem's Missa Au travail suis, based on his own partsong, sometimes attributed to an otherwise unknown Barbignant. Recorded in 1997, this recording is least pleasing in the many bicinia, where reduction to two voices exposes some individual weaknesses (and the balance issues heard from the group in recent outings stand out).

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