De la Rue Masses
Pierre de la Rue comes across as an inherently serious composer, his music reminiscent of the weightier Trappist ales of his homeland (the term ‘specific gravity’ describes it very well). This holds not only for works that are richly scored (the five-voice Missa de feria and the six-voice Pater de caelis, a jewel among renaissance motets) but also for those having the more usual four-voice layout, like the Mass Sancta Dei genitrix. Of the composers of his generation, La Rue comes perhaps closest to incorporating the qualities of textural and formal ‘seamlessness’ associated with Ockeghem in the previous generation, and with Gombert in the next.
La Rue’s is the latest music that Gothic Voices have ever recorded (with the possible exception of the Spanish “The Voice in the Garden”, Hyperion, 2/94), so listeners should not be surprised at the change in sound. Christopher Page observes in his sensitive annotations that La Rue’s music “does not buzz with the open fifths and octaves so familiar to the singers of Gothic Voices from medieval music”. Here, the group sound less brittle than they did in their recent recordings of English Masses (Hyperion, 2/97 and 10/97), although tempos are still comparatively brisk in relation to many recordings of Franco-Flemish polyphony; the acoustic of Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, is noticeably drier too (at least on this recording). The determination to adapt their sound to the needs of the music marks Gothic Voices out from many ensembles for early polyphony, and cannot be overpraised; yet on this recording there are signs that their careful search for the ‘right’ sound in this repertory has not quite reached equilibrium. Their unanimity of ensemble, usually so precise as to extend to formants and harmonics (as a recent reviewer observed of their recent English Mass discs), is not quite so faultless here; indeed, there are passages that cross the fine boundary between asperity and roughness (around 5'13'' of Pater de caelis, for instance, or at the word “quoniam” in the Gloria of the Missa de feria). Equally surprisingly for such a fastidious ensemble, the gallicized Latin pronunciation is allowed to slip more often than one is used to.
I suspect that Gothic Voices’ treble-dominated sound, appropriate to so much medieval music (especially that in which they have specialized), is not quite so suited to early renaissance polyphony in which all voices have equal prominence. Above all, the ebb and flow of La Rue’s music (so masterfully in evidence in Pater de caelis) does not elicit the same measure of give-and-take from the singers. It is as though they were (collectively) still feeling their way into an unfamiliar idiom. But what price intellectual curiosity, or the thrill of new discoveries? I have cheered Gothic Voices’ risk-taking before, and if the results are not quite as satisfying here, they may represent the first stage of a new exploration (or so I hope). Meanwhile, the beauty and integrity of La Rue’s music warrant a strong recommendation.'