Willaert, Ockeghem, Dufay, Gombert, de Monte, etc

COMPOSERS: De Monte,Dufay,etc,Gombert,Ockeghem,Willaert
LABELS: Eufoda
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Flemish Polyphony
WORKS: Salve flos Tuscae gentis; Alma redemptoris mater; A l’eure; Salve regina
PERFORMER: Capella Sancti Michaelis, Currende Consort/Erik van Nevel
CATALOGUE NO: 1160/69 (distr. One For You)
In the 15th and 16th centuries many of the best composers came from a relatively small area – the region now covered by Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and parts of Northern France. Their training in the great churches of those lands (such as Mons and Cambrai), and the courts (such as that of the Duke of Burgundy), prepared them to write sacred and secular music of the highest quality. Soon these composers were head-hunted by rulers as far away as Spain, Italy and Austria. Their wonderful music, and the astonishing story of their influence, are brought to life by this marvellously enterprising publication – a magnificently produced book coupled with some 11 hours of recorded music.

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The book has been written in non-technical language and is designed for ease of use. The first half gives detailed information on the musical traditions, the main centres of activity, the musical forms (mass, motet, chanson, etc) and the actual sources that survive from the period (manuscripts and printed partbooks). The second half provides a richly informative guide to the music of each of the CDs in turn, illuminating its context and clarifying the careers of the represented composers.

It would be difficult to fault the presentation of material: the clear organisation is complemented by literally dozens of attractive illustrations and some 30 reproductions of original musical sources. But I do have three quibbles. First, the propagandist zeal that led the author, Ignace Bossuyt, to describe this music comprehensively as Flemish might upset those sensitive to the traditions of the French-speaking areas of the Low Countries – traditions to which composers such as Dufay and Binchois really belonged. Second, he might have allowed himself to be just a shade more technical on occasions, particularly in the section on musical genres where, for example, the reader is told that virelais, ballades and rondeaux are all songs, but is not given any idea as to how they differ in form. Lastly, the composer who, it is generally agreed, established the migration to the south (Ciconia, d1412), is all but missing from the book, as is one of the main reasons for that drift to the south – the collapse of secure living for church musicians after the Low Countries backed the wrong side in the struggles between rival popes in the Great Schism. But these matters are for music analysts and historians to debate, and do not seriously detract from the merits of this lively introductory work.

Now for the CDs. It is impossible, in a few words, to do justice to the great pageant of music here, nearly 200 works by over 40 composers, all of it directed by Erik van Nevel. (Some major figures, such as Pipelare, are not represented.) English taste would normally require most of this repertory to be performed by voices alone, but van Nevel follows the continental tradition of supporting the voices with instruments. Usually, this is discreetly done, with firm, majestic results as in Dufay’s ‘Salve flos Tuscae gentis’ and Ockeghem’s ‘Alma redemptoris mater’. The bombast and churchy acoustic, however, can become unremitting, especially in secular pieces such as Josquin’s ‘A l’eure’. Also, there is distortion on some tracks, as with the shrill top voices of Obrecht’s Salve regina.

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As we move into the later 16th century matters improve, with a jolly disc of miscellaneous dances and many delights among the minor composers. Alexander Utendal’s works are a real discovery (especially his astonishing chromatic motet ‘Adesto, dolori meo’), as are the surreally modern-sounding organ pieces by Giovanni de Macque. In general, few of these composers are currently available in other recordings, though one exception is Giaches de Wert with recent discs by Rooley (Virgin Veritas), Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi) and van Nevel himself (Accent). Wert’s ‘Egressus Jesus’ appears both in the current recording and on the Accent label; both performances are by van Nevel but the Accent disc seems to have been produced in a clearer fashion. These, then, are not the greatest recordings possible, but they are consistently enjoyable, they give a vivid impression of the rich tapestry of Flemish (and other) music and finally, of course, they provide a magnificent resource for that famous after-dinner game of trying to list famous Belgians. Anthony Pryer