This is my second try at a review of this set, and I apologise at the outset for the marked contrast between my initial reaction and my present opinion.
Adriaan Willaert was born in 1490 in western Flanders, and like many of his musically talented compatriots, made his career in Italy. His great prestige and influence came from his position as Maestro di Cappella at the church of San Marco in Venice from 1527 to his death in 1562. Willaert's music was widely published during his lifetime, but he reserved many of his best works for a monumental collection which saw the light in 1559, just three years before his death. Deceptively entitled "Musica Nova," this collection included 25 madrigals and 27 sacred motets. Singer Pur recorded the madrigals in 2009, and the present set is a complete recording of the 27 motets. Some of these motets may have been composed for performance at the meetings of a select group of Florentine republicans who had fled to Venice to escape the tyrannical rulers of their home city - the Medici. Many of the texts are penitential or Marian, more suitable for private than public devotion, and it is easy to imagine this intimate, intricate music being sung by just a handful of aristocratic music-lovers in a Venetian home.
Singer Pur is exactly the right ensemble for this kind of music. They sing one voice per part, and their tuning is nearly perfect (there are just a couple of slightly dodgy passages in the very long motet for the Feast of the Circumcision at the end of disc 2). Their style of performance emphasises the rhetorical independence of the individual lines in this polyphony, rather than aiming for a blended mass of homophonic sound like some English choirs. Many of these motets include a soprano (really superius) part, and this part is sung with the greatest sensitivity by Claudia Reinhard, whose voice is far better than the harsh, reedy tone which can sometimes result when the superius part is assigned to a falsetto. In the motets without a soprano part, the men of Singer Pur sound very much like the men of Cinquecento, another ensemble which has done a recording of Willaert's music. Like Cinquecento, Singer Pur sing with absolute freedom from bar lines or batons.
When I first listened to this recording, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of Singer Pur's singing. But the more I listened to these CDs, the more I started to be nagged by the feeling that all of the motets sounded pretty much the same. In my earlier review, I rationalised this feeling away by reminding myself (and you, dearest reader) that some people have that reaction to ALL 16th century polyphony. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, a prominent English musician mocked Donald Tovey's interest in Palestrina by saying that everyone in the choir could accidentally turn TWO pages while singing one of his motets and not even notice.
That was, obviously, a ridiculous assertion, but as I listened to these Willaert CDs again, I started to agree with a previous reviewer's reaction to them. He noted a "sameness of pace, mood and dynamic." I didn't realise how right he was until, one evening, I listened to 5 or 6 of these Willaert motets, and then popped in the Brabant Ensemble's recording of Pierre de Manchicourt.
The contrast was a revelation, and made me realise that Mr. Midgley's reaction was spot on - this Willaert set is just dull. But personally I don't think it is because of Singer Pur. I think it is Willaert's fault.
I know how impudent it is for me to tell you what I think of Willaert and not limit my opinions to just the performance. But we all know that the modern "Early Music" scene is just two generations old, and I think most will agree with me if I say that the present critical consensus regarding what is worthwhile in, say, 19th-century music is far riper than our collective opinions of music from the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries. (Giordano Bruno and I had a long and (perhaps) interesting exchange regarding critical judgments of baroque music in the comments on his review of this CD of baroque arias: Colori D'amore.) So here I will, briefly, explain why I cannot get very excited about these Willaert motets.
There is 16th-century music which, metaphorically speaking of course, just grabs me by the hair and compels me to listen to it, completely enraptured. Manchicourt does this to me. Every single one of Pierre's pieces that I have ever heard (and I only know the sacred music) has impressed me with its intellectual/compositional mastery AND its emotional impact. I never have to strain to find something interesting in Manchicourt's music, and in spite of the contrapuntal/rhythmic/tonal wizardry that he employs, all of what I have heard from him is still very sharply characterised.
This is simply not the case with Willaert. One track on the present Willaert set which does nothing for me is the motet HAEC EST DOMUS DOMINI, track 4 on disc 1. I don't think that the dullness here is Singer Pur's fault. Their tuning is perfect, their phrasing immaculate etc but there is just nothing in this motet for them to get excited about. The bass line is a little bit firmer for the words "firmam petram," (=solid rock) and the superius has a cute little downward run for "fundavit" (poured) and "flumina" (river), but that's about it. The melodic material is never particularly striking, nor have I ever seen or heard, in any 16th-century motet, a pair of more indifferent and joyless alleluias! Willaert's counterpoint is stunningly fluid, the "modulations" well prepared and smooth, but I don't know what more Singer Pur could have done with this piece to make it interesting. I don't have the score in front of me, but I suspect not much. (And by the way, what an absolutely DIVINE singer their soprano is - Oh would that the Hilliard Ensemble had found her 20 years ago!!!)
It was after listening to that Willaert motet that I despaired and turned to the Brabanters' Manchicourt CD, which opens with Manchicourt's REGINA COELI. The text is actually not so different from the text of that Willaert motet (which is basically Marian as well), but what a difference in musical interest. Manchicourt's alleluias are stunning, and there is a thrilling canonic race to the finish between the two upper voices as well.
Am I cherry picking here? After a week of listening to these Willaert motets, I think not. There are some nice "modulations" in these motets, and Willaert's word painting is meticulous and often interesting, but I don't find his thematic material memorable, and the phrase rhythm of Willaert's motets rarely varies. Willaert does have one favourite "deceptive cadence" to the "relative minor" (more or less) of a major-sounding mode that he uses to good effect in his penitential motets, but the cadences in Gombert and Manchicourt are far more varied. I can listen to Manchicourt for hours (well, about 4 to be exact, which takes me through the 4 worthwhile Manchicourt CDs that have ever been issued), but I cannot hear more than a couple of the Willaert motets or mass movements before I give up.
I am not at all familiar with Willaert's madrigals, and will someday force myself to have a listen to some of them, but on the basis of the Willaert sacred music from this set and the Capilla Flamenca disc, I will not be chasing down any more of his sacred music. Singer Pur, I think, does their very best with this music, but I can't imagine myself listening to these CDs again when I can listen to Manchicourt or Gombert or Clemens or Morales instead.
I would love to hear from the Willaert devotees out there - is there something I am missing in these motets? If so please tell me what. In the meantime, I hope Singer Pur keeps singing and that they have done enough Willaert for a while.