... might be the opportunity to hear the ensemble Cinquecento in live performance. You know the Michelin 'green' guides, with their system of stars, one star for 'worth seeing,' two stars for 'worth a detour,' and three stars for 'worth a special visit'? Cinquecento is worth a special visit to your local CD store or your amazon shopping cart. The Vienna-based ensemble, founded in 2004, includes six male voices: countertenors Terry Wey and Jakob Huppmann, tenors Tore Denys and Thomas Künne, baritone Tim Whiteley, and bass Ulfried Stabler. They are committed to rigorously authentic performance, one on a part, of 15th and 16th C polyphony, especially by composers associated with Habsburg Vienna as were Jacobus Vaet (1529-1567), Pieter Maessens (1505-1562), and Antonius Galli (d.1565).
Those composers' names should alert anyone to the fact that this is a recording of little-known works by mostly-forgotten composers. If you're modestly acquainted with Renaissance music, that fact won't daunt you; some of the finest compositions of the 16th C are anonymous, and the survival of any music, even by the composers of the greatest fame, is a matter of chance and contingency. What makes this CD easy to recommend is the quality of the performance. Cinquecento (the name means "Fifteen Hundreds") could sing the Vienna phone directory and make it beautiful.
There are two genres of polyphony included in this performance: seven motets in Latin for four to six voices, and a mass for six voices, Missa Ascendetis post filium by Antonius Galli. The polyphonic musical idiom of motets and masses was the same in this era, but the affect is often quite different. To draw an analogy, motets are to masses as the 'starters' are to the main courses in many upscale restaurants -- smaller but more imaginative or distinctive. The texts, of course, necessitate differentiation. The five Ordinaries of the mass -- kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, agnus dei -- are utterly comfort food; every singer and listener of the Renaissance knew them by heart, and so should you by now if you've listened to half the CDs I've reviewed. Motet texts include some that were (and are) widely familiar, liturgical items like Vaet's Videns Dominus, as well as some that were original and unique, such as Vaet's requiem motet 'Continuo lacrimis' in honor of the dead composer Clemens non Papa. The motet genre allowed composers to experiment, both with technicalities of music and with affective expression. The setting of a Mass, on the other hand, challenged a composer to match his best against the greatest musical monuments of his time and place. Galli, for instance, seems to have been a dubious character, a Fleming booted out of a good musical berth In Bruges for carousing with the choristers in taverns He made a come-back in Vienna and earned an honorable income as a cantor in the Court of Maximilian II, but he apparently wrote rather little, less than a tenth of the output of Clemens, less than a hundredth of the works of Pierre de la Rue. Nevertheless, in the mass recorded here, he rose to the challenge, composing masterful, progressive polyphony worthy of comparison to that of Orlande de Lassus, the most acclaimed composer of the era. Galli's 'Hosanna' is particularly eloquent.
Stephen Rice, in the notes for this CD, asserts that Jakob Vaet "would undoubtedly be among the best-known composers of the sixteenth century had he not died at the age of about thirty-seven." Vaet had already become chapelmaster, at age twenty-four, in Maximilian's court as Archduke of Austria, and he continued in prominence at the Habsburg court until his sudden death. His duties included recruiting and directing a force of up to seventy singers. His motet "Ascenditid post filium" -- the source of material for Galli's mass of the same name -- was almost certainly written for an imperial occasion, perhaps the succession of Maxilmilan to the Kingship of Bohemia in 1562 or of Hungary in 1563. The text is paraphrased from the Bible, from I Kings 1:35, in which Solomon is annointed King of Israel while his father David is still alive.
Two other composers are represented on this CD by motets. Pieter Maessens, another Fleming, was a generation older that Vaet, and his motet Discessu is closer in style to Josquin or Mouton than to Vaet or to Orlandus Lassus, here exemplified by the motet Pacis amans. But all of this music from north of the Alps in the mid 16th C would have seemed 'old-fashioned' to composers in Italy in the same decades. Vaet was a full decade younger, for instance, than Cipriano de Rore, the pioneer of chromatic madrigalism. "Old-fashioned" is not derogatory! The serene Apollonian perfection of Franco-Flemish polyphony was - and was intended to be - timeless and otherworldly. The rejection of that serenity, in favor of Dionysian human passion, was the impetus of the baroque.
Lucky us! Through the magic of recording technology, we get to flip back and forth in musical ages.