Astonishing and breathtaking music
Sator | Sydney, Australia | 08/14/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"J.S. Bach only waited about a century for Mendellsohn to rediscover him for the world. Now five centuries after succumbing to the plague in July of 1505 - probably contracted while ministering to plague victims - Obrecht's time may have come at last. Thanks largely to the research by Rob Wegman, his stature as a composer continues to grow steadily in the eyes of posterity. So much so that there may come a time when we speak of his age as being the age of Obrecht, whereas for now many still see it as the age of Josquin.
Jacob Obrecht (1458 - 1505) was a contemporary of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) and an older contemporary of Raphael (1483 - 1520) and Michelangelo (1475 - 1564). As a music teacher Obrecht also taught the humanist thinker, Erasmus (1466 - 1536). Obrecht belongs to a generation of composers of the 1400s to early 1500's who Monteverdi later referred to as the Prima Prattica - the artists of the First Practice - who brought the extraordinarily rich polyphonic music of the Renaissance to its peak. Until recently the judgement handed down through the centuries of Josquin as the single outstanding composer of the Prima Prattica has been unquestioningly accepted. Martin Luther is repeatedly quoted as saying that "Josquin is a master of notes, which must express what he desires; on the other hand, other choral composers must do what the notes dictate." Fortunately, we are increasingly discovering the sheer depth and diversity displayed by Josquin's contemporaries, in a Golden Age of Western music whose contrapuntal complexities have never been equalled let alone surpassed. Indeed it would appear that the radical innovations traditionally attributed to Josquin should now be attributed to Obrecht.
This recording by the Oxford Camerata is an essential recording of the music of Obrecht. For a start it opens with a simply breathtaking performance of the Salve Regina for four voices - one of my favorite amongst all Renaissance motets. This is a performance that can stand comparison with that by Erik van Nevel, although somewhat more introspective, the impact of the beauty of the writing never fails to astonish.
The Missa Caput is one of the earliest Masses of Obrecht's mature period and was probably composed soon after his arrival in Bruges. The work is a 'remake' of an earlier work, the anonymous English Caput mass. It took some time before Manfred Bokofzer identified the cantus firmus. Several of Missa Caput's movements end in brilliant and elaborate flourishes over the tenor's final longa.
If that wasn't enough the Oxford Camerata include the six part Salve Regina as well to conclude the work in a convincing performance, although it could have had more tension and momentum.
This recording was quite justly awarded with the prestigious Goldberg early music magazine five start rating - something few recordings get at all. The recording quality is also the best I have heard of the Oxford Camerata in their series for Naxos. The sound is detailed, refined and surprisingly spacious - better than many CDs from some major recording companies.
The results amount to a recording that is absolutely essential and at this ridiculous price a real steal."
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 01/27/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Flamboyant Gothic" is a specific designation in architecture, the meaning of which should be obvious "on the surface". If ever a piece of music could bear comparison to the flamboyant architectural extravagances of the portals of a Gothic cathedral, or to the prismatic radiance of Gothic stained glass windows, it would be Jacob Obrecht's Missa Caput, with its 'surface' of restless ornamental energy, its constant rhythmic prolations and colorations (also specific terms, referring to shifts in rhythm, usually between twos and threes), and its expressive exuberance, so distinct from the common apprehension of Obrecht as an 'intellectual' composer of otherwordly devotions. But, just as the most gargoyled and bedizened Gothic cathedral is supported on buttresses of exquisite engineering, structured in space and time by mathematics and pragmatic masonry, the Missa Caput is supported by a remarkably firm frame of 'cantus firmus' derived from a widely-known anonymous "Flamboyant English" mass which uses as its 'tenor' the melimastic last phrase, on the word CAPUT, from the plainchant antiphon 'Venit ad Petrum'. The tern 'tenor' is also specific in musicology, referring not to the high male voice but rather to the line of music, often expressed in long notes, that 'holds' (mainTAINs) the composition together. For Obrecht, and for Obrecht's generation, the evolution of the tenor, the structural role of the tenor, was probably the most significant question of musical theory.
Obrecht borrowed more than the simple tenor sequence of pitches for this mass. Essentially he recycled the whole lay-out of voices, spreading the tenor role throughout the various parts in all five sections of the 'ordinaries' (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Why he chose to do so is the sort of subject doctoral candidate salivate over. But then, there's a mystery about Obrecht's musical personality -- his constantly changing stylistic experimentation -- that attaches to nearly all of his 30 surviving masses, despite the fact that Rob Wegman has written the most ample and insightful biography about Obrecht of any Renaissance composer. The mystery is even stranger when one realizes that Johannes Ockeghem, Obrecht's great musical model, also recycled the English Missa Caput as the foundation of one of his own most energetic masses. Competition? Emulation? Aspiration? Or some spiritual urge that Obrecht's peers would have taken for granted but that is impenetrable to us today?
The Oxford Camerata is an ensemble that I have sometimes found disappointing. With twelve or more voices, they can sound awfully "choral" and stodgy. This performance, however, is one of their best... I might even crawl out on the limb and say, their very best. The musical texture, despite all the flourishes and whirligigs, is wonderfully 'transparent', allowing each part to declaim its own musical ideas distinctly, and the Camerata makes the most of that transparency. They could stand a little more testosterone in the lower parts -- an Italian ensemble like La Risonanza could lend them a bass -- unless, as I suspect, they are transposing the whole score to suit the ranges of their female sopranos. There is a level of artistry that the Oxford Camerata doesn't reach; if you want to hear that level, listen to The Clerks' Group singing Pierre de la Rue's Missa de Santa Croce, another example of flamboyant polyphony. In comparison to that performance, this CD doesn't merit the full five stars. Four-and-a-half, okay.
This is one of the only five CDs of the masses of Jacob Obrecht that I recommend. The others are:
The Tallis Scholars - "Maria Zart"
Cappella Pratensis - "Sancto Donatiano"
The Clerks' group - "Sub tuum praesidium"
The Clerks' group - "Malheur me bat""