Jacob Obrecht: Missa de Sancto Donatiano (CD+DVD)
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A contemporary of Josquin des Prez, the Dutch composer Jacob Obrecht's Missa de Sancto Donatiano was written at the end of the 15th century. It is sung by the critically-acclaimed vocal group, Cappella Pratensis. Along with the CD this release also includes a DVD of a performance of the Mass.
Jacob Obrecht was a Dutch composer known mainly for his substantial output of Mass settings in the late 15th century, as well as for his motets and songs. The Missa de Sancto Donatiano, a commemorative piece commissioned by the wife of a renowned fur merchant, was first sung in the St. Jacobskerk in Bruges in October 1487.
Founded in 1987, the Dutch-based vocal ensemble Cappella Pratensis, champions the music of Josquin des Prez and the polyphonists of the 15th and 16th centuries. The ensemble has made a series of CD recordings that have met with critical acclaim and distinctions from the press (including the Diapason d'Or and the Prix Choc). Its artistic director is Stratton Bull.
The bonus DVD contains a filmed re-enactment of the mass plus an extensive documentary featuring Prof. Jennifer Boxam (Professor of Music Williams College, Massachusetts USA) and Stratton Bull made on location in Bruges.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Missa De Sancto Donatiano as performed here manages to bring out not only the structural complexity of the work, but also its sheer sensuous beauty, not to mention the mood of gentle joy that pervades it, as it does many of Obrecht's works. Although a few might prefer the faster paced, harder edged and more manneristic rendition of ANS Chorus under Janos Bali, recorded on Hungaraton, this is the better performance of the work for most listeners.
The DVD is an added bonus, and pays due attention to the multiple layers of meaning of the work and the musical materials out of which it is made. Since other reviewers have said enough about the video, I will confine myself to noting a couple imprecisions in the documentary part of the DVD. Catholic theology did not then (and now does not now) countenance the "worship" of saints in the usual English sense of the term, as the interlocutors imply at one point. Unless that, that is, in the sense that even in Protestant England people used to refer to judges as "Your Worship!" Also, it is not precisely true that the elevation is the point at which, according to Catholic theology, the bread in the Mass becomes the Body of Christ. That happens at the "Words of Institution" immediately before.
Overall, a lovely CD and a useful DVD!
Cappella Pratensis, under its new conductor Stratton Bull, has blessed us with a CD/DVD combo of amazing quality. Let's start with the DVD. It includes a filmed 'recreation' of the premiere 'performance' of Jacob Obrecht's Missa de Sancto Donatiano, as sung in the Donass Chapel of the Sint Jacobskerk in Bruges on an evening in October 1487. That chapel is now a storage closet, so the recreation was staged in a similar chapel in the Sint Gilliskerk of Bruges. The eight choristers are clothed in simple white surplices and sing standing shoulder to shoulder from a single part-book in original 'white' notation placed on a massaive lectern. The three celebrants of the mass sing their liturgical 'propers' at an altar to the side of the choir. A woman in opulent Renaissance costume kneels at their feet; she is the widow of the wealthy merchant Donaas de Moor, who commissioned the composition of the mass and the singing of it in perpetuity. The actress playing this role looks remarkably like the patroness, whom we see in double, in the flesh and in the right-hand panel of the altarpiece of the Deposition, painted by the 'Master of the Saint Lucy Legend'. The kneeling middle-aged man portrayed on the left-hand panel is the dead merchant, Donaas de Moor, who obviously commissioned the painting. The celebrants are clad in priestly vestments and conduct the Mass in full solemnity. The camera roams from them to the choristers to the details of the altarpiece with appropriate cinematographic restraint. Watching the faces of the eight choristers becomes a marvelous source of insight into the structure of the music as well as a potent spiritual experience of the religious sensibilities that underlay that music. You can literally 'see' the cantus firmus on the lips of the tenors. You can 'watch' the texture of polyphony as the four parts alternate with duets and trios, sometimes two on a part, sometimes only one. If you haven't learned yet how to hear polyphony polyphonically, this DVD will be the most valuable 'learning tool' you'll ever find.
But that's not all! The DVD has an extended 'documentary' presentation, a conversation between Prof. Jennifer Bloxam, a musicologist at Williams College in Massachusetts and Stratton Bull, the artistic director of Cappella Pratensis. You'll hear the history of the composition, something about the composer's life, some simple analyses of the music and the liturgical context in which it existed. You'll see some of the actual parchment manuscripts used by Obrecht's contemporaries. You'll get a look at original notation. And, amusingly, you'll see the choristers in rehearsal, in scruffy jeans and sweaters instead of robes. Plus you'll get enticing views of the city of Bruges as it stands today. I guarantee that you'll understand and appreciate Renaissance polyphony at a new level after watching this DVD.
And now the CD, the 'concert' performance of Obrecht's mass. If the singing were not as superb as the cinematography, one would groan in anguish. But it is! The choir of eight men are flawless in rhythm and tuning throughout. Singing as they do, from original notation, they shape their linear rhetoric with profound emotive independence. Their balance and ensemble is brilliant. Obrecht's music is staggeringly complex and multi-faceted, with nearly subliminal allusions to plainchant, to the popular songs of late Medieval Flanders, and to Obrecht's musical idol, the composer Johannes Ocheghem. Add to that the complexity of polytextuality. The 'ordinaries' of the mass are sung simultaneously with longer texts from the 'propers', that is, the antiphons appropriate to the celebration of the Day of Saint Donatianus, all in Latin. But in the third Kyrie, a song in Dutch provides the cantus firmus, and later in the mass, two Latin texts are superimposed over the words of the Credo. Musical and linguistic intricacies are balanced in much the same way that Renaissance painters balanced portrayals of Sacred events with scenes of ordinary life.
It's nearly impossible for a modern-day listener to 'follow' the words of such polytextual polyphony, even if he/she comprehends Latin or has the text in print on the little pages of a CD booklet. Once again, that DVD will come to your rescue, since the texts are available in subtitles in English, French, German, and Dutch.
Jacob Obrecht (1457-1505) was as masterful a composer as any of any era, ranking with Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez, and this mass was one of his mightiest accomplishments. I'm humbly grateful just to have survived long enough to hear such a sublime performance of it, half a millennium later.
P.S. Is it possible that only one other reviewer noticed this glaring defect?