There are more ways to sing and hear the polyphonic masses of the Renaissance than somber choral piety. Of course, it helps to be sensitive to the indications of mood and message in the musical score. Edward Wickham and the Clerks' Group adapt their vocal technique and ensemble spectacularly to the very different expressive characters of the two masses performed on this CD.
Missa Ma Maistresse (my mistress) is all sunshine and tinted glass, as light-hearted as the chanson upon which it is based. This expressive character is no happenstance. Ockeghem achieves it by shifting his usual distribution of voices toward the trebles and by thinning the complexity of his polyphony to feature extended duets, a tactic also adopted by Josquin in the next generation. He multiplies it by his choice of the transposed Ionian mode (modern F major), which Renaissance theorists regarded as Jovian, hyper-cheerful, even lascivious. Edward Wickham further emphasizes the jolly quality of this mass by taking much brighter tempi than are usually assumed for choral performances, and by using women's voices on the treble lines.
Missa Caput is written in the Dorian mode (D to d on white keys only), which was the mode of meditative sobriety, and the commonest mode of all polyphonic masses by a wide margin. Ockeghem assigns the greater part of thematic statements to the lower voices, and carries the bass to the bottom of the singer's range. The mass is built chiefly on descending figures. Wickham assigns all parts to male singers, restrains his male altos from over-balancing the tenors and basses, and sets much darker, slower tempi throughout. [There has been scholarly disagreement about the authenticity of this mass as a composition by Ockeghem. Other composers of sufficient skill were to be found in Ockeghem's era, and it could well be that the greatest of them all is utterly lost to history. All I have to say is that Missa Caput, performed this well, seems worthy of Ockeghem.]
Missa Ma Maistresse is truncated; only two movements survive, alas, even though it seems to have been a product of Ockeghem's later and most acclaimed period. However, the chanson on which it's based, written by a younger Ockeghem, is included on this CD and performed quite imaginatively. Only the treble sings the words; the tenor and bass sing solfeggio vowels, with the result of greater textual clarity and a charmingly sincere love plaint. Three motets not by Ockeghem but of the same era, taken from an anonymous manuscript called Trent 88, fill out the expressive mood of Ma Maistresse and prepare the listener for the transition to Missa Caput.
This is a very appealing performance, one that might serve, with its sparkling variety, to introduce new listeners to the genius of Johannes Ockeghem. No other ensemble has recorded so many of Ockeghem's great masses, and only the Orlando Consort has ever performed them as well.