I've been performing, studying, and relishing 16th polyphony for half a century. I've heard quite a few of the fifty surviving French chansons by Manchicourt and a couple of his motets as the extra selections on recordings of masses by other composers, but nothing had fully prepared me for the excellence of Manchicourt's "Missa Cuidez vous que Dieu nous faille." On the page, it looks like an average "parody" mass based on the style of Johannes Ockeghem and also resembling the high-tessitura "Missa sub tuum praesidium" of Jacob Obrecht. To the ears, however, it's a soundswept tempest of cross-rhythms, in which the typical contrapuntal imitations and melismata gather extraordinary emotional momentum. Instead of the serenity in the masses of Josquin and most of his contemporaries, the affect in this music is passion with a hint of ferocity. The melodic material of the Missa comes from a five-voice French chanson -- that's why it's called a "parody" mass -- by Jean Richafort, set with two superius/soprano parts. That chanson is included in this performance. The text declares that "if you worry that God has failed" to provide for us mortals, just wait for the Day of Judgment. A scary thought perhaps, on some level, even for a composer employed in a cathedral in 16th C Picardy? In any case, the music evokes the intensity of the text. And it's a large conception -- thirty-two minutes in this performance -- that surmounts the sectional format of Renaissance mass-composition to achieve more than usual unity and a sense of developing excitement. That sense is heightened by the addition of a sixth voice, a second alto, in the Agnus Dei, and by the gradual upward-soaring tessitura of the two sopranos in the Hosanna. Thereafter the Benedictus is set as a trio for the three top voices, sung superbly OVPP by the three Ashby sisters who are the mainstays of the Brabant sound.
The extraordinarily high tessitura of this mass makes it especially suitable for the voices of The Brabant Ensemble, a group that uses women singers for both soprano and alto parts. This performance, to my ears, is the best balanced between women's and men's voices of all the recordings issued by the Brabanters so far, as well as the most spirited in interpretation. If you have any interest in Renaissance vocal polyphony, this CD is a "must have" selection.